- 1 year ago
19 December 2022
It’s been 14 months since Michael Azrak stepped into the highly coveted role of Moderna’s first Australian General Manager reporting directly to global CEO Stéphane Bancel and the local leader describes his journey so far as incredible – but with so much more coming for the mRNA juggernaut, Azrak has no chance of resting on his laurels.
Moderna had only a handful of employees when Azrak first joined in October 2021, one of his first tasks being to build out his team. The local affiliate now boasts just over 30 employees with a number of new roles still open, while Azrak himself reports to Arpa Garay, Moderna’s Chief Commercial Officer. By the end of 2023, Azrak expects to have around 50 employees in the Australia affiliate.
On the operational side, Azrak had two major tasks to achieve this year and has delivered on both – first, breaking ground on Moderna’s manufacturing facility at Monash University and second, delivering Covid vaccines for Australians. Along with the team, he ranks these accomplishments understandably as among his 2022 highlights.
“Building a best-in-class team to advance Moderna’s mission in Australia has been an incredible journey,” he tells MedNews. “It’s been a privilege to be able to do that and we were really fortunate that we had so many applicants for every role.
“Talent in Australia is great but what really differentiates talent in our mind is people who exhibit the Moderna mindsets. We look for people who question convention, act with urgency, push past possible, act like business owners, pivot fearlessly, and want to remove viscosity, and I’m really pleased at how the team is coming together.”
With such a high-performing team, Azrak says he keeps it on track by ensuring they have a shared goal and vision, agreed priorities, and most importantly, know to ask for help.
“Nobody delivers on their own,” he says. “The best-performing teams have a shared vision, know their priorities, aren’t afraid to ask for help, and are there for each other, while the foundation of it all is trust.
“That’s what I’m seeing happen at Moderna and at the pace we operate, that’s critical. Everybody trusts each other and we’re all here to support each other.”
Breaking ground on the Monash site was a big highlight and milestone for Azrak who says Monash was always the company’s preferred option.
“The irony is that it was a drive-through Covid testing centre, and now it’s going to be a fully integrated, one-stop shop producing drug substance all the way through to a finished vial,” he says.
“We needed to break ground by the end of this year, which we have done, and we should now have the shed up by September next year.
“Then we work on the fitout and getting all the engineering and the pipework in, which takes about a year, then you start to validate, doing your PPQ (process performance qualification) batches, working with the TGA to get GMP certification, and finally, you make product.
“It’s been a really interesting journey and as long as the Melbourne weather holds out on us, we will be operational by the end of 2024.”
The promise of mRNA technology
Delivering Australia’s first bivalent, strain-specific vaccine “right when we needed it” was another highlight of 2022 for Azrak, while he says concluding the company’s agreements with the Federal and Victorian Governments “was a really nice way to wrap up the year”.
Yet just when he thought it was slowing down, Moderna released world-leading trial results for its personalised mRNA cancer vaccine in combination with MSD’s Keytruda in late-stage melanoma.
For Azrak, it was a serendipitous blending of past and future given he spent 15 years at MSD before moving to Moderna. He recalls scientists in MSD telling him in 2016 how mRNA technology had the potential to be a game-changer in both oncology and RSV but says the first melanoma trial results were still mind-blowing.
“I wasn’t expecting these results,” he says. “These are topline results and there is a lot of stuff that still has to be worked through, but I know the intensity Moderna is going to put into the development program will match, if not exceed, what Moderna did to get a Covid vaccine to market in 12 months.”
When it comes to making a personalised cancer vaccine in Australia, Azrak is not yet sure as the Monash facility is “a population-scale health facility” while the cancer vaccine is “a very individualised cancer product”.
“I’ll’ start to lean into it next year,” he says. “There’s a team of people at both Moderna and MSD looking at it now, but I was blown away by the results – that 44 per cent reduction was on top of Keytruda.
“As [melanoma Professor] Georgina Long said, this could be the second penicillin of cancer immunotherapy, and that’s probably right on the mark.”
More mRNA yet to come
While the initial success of mRNA vaccines will always be linked to the Covid pandemic, Azrak says for Moderna, it’s been a 12 year mission. He welcomed news Sanofi had partnered with the Queensland Government to explore new vaccine technology in the state, along with BioNTech’s deal to work with the Peter MacCallum Centre in Victoria.
“Suddenly you’ve got Moderna, BioNTech and Sanofi all in Australia, and that’s just in mRNA,” he said. “When you think about gene editing and all the new technologies, people should really start to look at Australia and the capabilities that we have here.”
When it comes to his 2023 priorities, apart from keeping the manufacturing site on track Azrak says the company is close to signing a lease on a Melbourne CBD premises that will be its administrative headquarters, while the recent announcement that Dr Craig Rayner had joined Moderna as Director of its Centre for Respiratory Medicine and Tropical Disease means the Centre is also on track, Dr Rayner tasked with building out the centre’s ecosystem.
Globally, Moderna’s other clinical trials are progressing, and Azrak believes will soon produce more work for his local team of all-stars to sink their collective professional teeth into.
“We’ve got more readouts in 2023 in our mRNA flu product and our mRNA RSV vaccine, so we will start to prepare for those launches in Australia,” he says. “The question will be whether we make them in Australia or source them through the global supply chain.”