How two companies sprinted ahead in extraordinary race for a COVID vaccine
Following last week’s announcement by Pfizer that its vaccine under trials had shown over 90% effectiveness, significantly ahead of expectations, Moderna, another American biotech firm, reported this week that its vaccine candidate too had reported similar effectiveness. In last week’s edition of 3L&3S, we featured a piece about why despite what is clearly significant progress, there are challenges to bring it to market quickly, atleast at a scale that can reach millions across the world. This piece however is about how these firms could achieve such progress defying all historical trends of vaccine development, which often takes years (the fastest vaccine development on record has been for mumps which took four years). Why, specifically these two could pull ahead of the several other vaccines under development across the world? Part of the answer lies in the common technology – mRNA that these two vaccines share:
“Their work validates that of several tiny biotechnology firms, which for years have been laboring to prove a once-unorthodox idea: The human body can act as its own vaccine factory. Both the Pfizer and Moderna inoculations work by injecting people with customized genetic code that instructs human cells to make key virus proteins to induce an immune response….”
In Pfizer’s case, its chief viral vaccine scientist’s background helped:
“At Novartis AG, Dormitzer began testing novel ways to make vaccines using messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA, which contains instructions for human cells. In this case, scientists introduce mRNA instructions for cells to make a portion of a virus, which the immune system recognizes as a threat and counters with a protective response. No actual virus is involved in the process.
By contrast, to create a typical vaccine, scientists use bits of dead or weakened virus, which are then injected to produce the immune response.
The appeal of mRNA vaccines – and a key secret to their speed – is they are plug-and-play: The mRNA vehicle does not need to change, only the specific genetic instructions it carries. If the virus changes or mutates, the details of the instructions can be altered accordingly.”
A crucial partnership with a German biotech startup helped too:
“…BioNTech had mRNA production capacity, a solid team of scientists and a desire to start working on infectious diseases.
Again, the companies proved to have complementary skills. “BioNTech is a smaller company, more flexible,” said Karikó. “A big pharma, like Pfizer, has the infrastructure, knows how to scale up, how to run things.”
And ofcourse, speed of decision making and access to resources was a key factor:
“‘Your mandate is to get this vaccine made. And if you need resources, you come and you ask for them, and you’re going to get them’, the Pfizer CEO reportedly told his chief scientist.
“In Pfizer’s and BioNTech’s case, decision-making that normally would take months was reduced to days, including the crucial call on which vaccine version to use in a human clinical trial…Work proceeded so fast that some researchers went weeks without seeing their families. Dormitzer hasn’t seen his wife and kids since March, apart from Zoom calls.
“The urgency, the coordination, the intensity, I’ve never felt it more strongly … there is no downtime,” said Dr. Pei-Yong Shi of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, who developed a new method to test the strength of the antibodies generated by the vaccine.”