US and China in all-out race for coronavirus vaccine by autumn

Linda J. Dodson

TOKYO — The coronavirus competition between the U.S. and China goes beyond developing a vaccine, as both countries aim to accelerate that process to unprecedented speeds in hopes of starting large-scale production by autumn.

U.S.-based Moderna lifted stock prices around the world Monday after it announced promising preliminary results, saying that eight subjects who received the company’s vaccine candidate developed a similar or higher level of antibodies compared with recovered patients.

But China is still ahead in the process to create a vaccine. Four of eight candidates worldwide undergoing clinical trials as of Friday were developed by Chinese players, the World Health Organization said. Sinovac Biotech is on track to conclude a Phase II trial in July that began last month.

Moderna’s results were promising, but they were only in a Phase I clinical trial. The company plans to start a Phase III trial in July, fast-tracking a development process that would normally take a year or two. Phase IV represents the final phase of trials.

With over 1.5 million coronavirus cases nationwide, the U.S. is aggressively backing efforts for a vaccine. Moderna was awarded $483 million in April by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

But not all companies are capable of mass-producing vaccines, and in Moderna’s case, there is a twist. The company’s candidate uses genetic material called RNA, an approach never adopted for an approved vaccine. Manufacturing it would require know-how on synthesizing the nucleic acid, and only big pharmaceutical companies like AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson possess the facilities to handle such complex production processes.

Countries already are maneuvering to secure access to the critical facilities for mass-producing a future vaccine. BARDA has invested in both foreign and domestic companies capable of such mass production, including Sanofi in France — a move that could stir opposition in Europe.

“The U.S. government has the right to the largest preorder because it’s invested in taking the risk,” Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson told Bloomberg on May 13. This comment prompted a sharp response from the French government.

“It would be unacceptable if there were privileged access to countries for financial reasons,” France’s state secretary for economy and finance, Agnes Pannier-Runacher, said Thursday on French radio.

Sanofi walked back the statement. Industry insiders see Hudson’s comments as a swipe against the European approach to vaccines, which places less weight on production.

The European Union plans to spend about 2.4 billion euros ($2.63 billion) in emergency funds to secure its supply of vaccines. It also could provide assistance to producers within the bloc.

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