The whole world is coming together in the fight against COVID-19. The quest for a vaccine is revolutionizing the controversial Big Pharma. Nearly 200 vaccine candidates are in development, 39 in human clinical trials and nine in Phase III trials.
Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of this unprecedented pandemic has been the wholehearted embrace of collaboration in the pharmaceutical industry, which was characterized as everything but a collective spirit.
We've seen traditional pharma giant AstraZeneca (NYSE:AZN) joining forces with a legendary academic institution such as University of Oxford to compensate for the effect it was not a major player in vaccines. We've seen rivals snuggle up in pairs such as Sanofi (NASDAQ:SNY) and GSK (NYSE:GSK) and international collaborations galore: Germany's BioNTech (NASDAQ:BNTX), for instance, is testing one novel messenger RNA vaccine with giant Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), in New York, and a second with Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical (OTC:SFOSF).
Moderna, Innovio, Pfizer and BioNTech
Clinical-stage biotech companies like Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA) and Inovio Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:INO) have also rapidly entered into clinical trials which has led them to dramatic share-price gains. Moreover, Moderna's investigational candidate was the first to enter human trials, and Inovio followed quickly. Moderna's shares have gained 258% this year, while Inovio has climbed 256%.
A big Pharma player could also be near the finish line as Pfizer partnered with Germany's BioNTech in March. Both Moderna and the Pfizer/BioNTech team are developing messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines that instruct the body's cells to produce proteins that will prevent infection unlike traditional that stimulate immunity by exposing the organism to a weaker form of the virus.
Results from a phase 1 trial of the Pfizer candidate show promise in key areas: neutralizing antibodies that protect against their infection and safe and effective performance in the elderly which have been among the most vulnerable.
As for manufacturing, AstraZeneca seems to be leading in that "game". Its planned supply covers nearly 3 billion doses whereas Pfizer plans to deliver as many as 1.3 billion doses by the end of next year. Pfizer's capacity remains greater than that of its closest biotech rival in terms of timeline, Moderna. Its range is between 500 million and 1 billion doses annually starting next year.
Late-comers : Novavax and JNJ
Two very different drugmakers have recently joined the late-stage testing landscape. Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) phase 3 clinical study of JNJ-78436735, also known as Ad26.COV2.S, began in late September, gathering 60,000 people whereas Novavax (NASDAQ:NVAX) started a phase 3 test of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate in the U.K. the following day. J.P. Morgan analysts think that Novavax's NVX-CoV2373 could be the best of the leading COVID-19 vaccines in development as it already sealed big deals with both the U.S., the U.K. and Canada.
Novavax was behind Johnson & Johnson in moving forward with a late-stage study of its coronavirus vaccine candidate in the U.S but it expects to begin a phase 3 trial in the U.S. this month but as of Monday, Johnson & Johnson trial has been paused due to an unexplained illness. Although Johnson & Johnson is definitely less risky than Novavax, the latter has much greater growth prospects especially if its NanoFlu, the nanoparticle-based influenza vaccine gets approved by FDA as it could generate peak annual sales of around $1.7 billion.
A chance for redemption
On a bright note, drugmakers are joining forces like never before to fight the coronavirus. The benefits could last well beyond the pandemic. The pharmaceutical industry was the most disliked sector in the US according to Gallup's polling but COVID-19 has provided the Big Pharma with an opportunity for redemption. Their response to the pandemic has reminded many of their capacities and how they can be helpful to the world. The only question is can they rise to the challenge as there is no guarantee that even these late-stage clinical trials will be successful.
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