- German messenger RNA therapeutics developer BioNTech has become the latest firm to begin developing a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, joining a growing list of biotechs and large pharmaceutical companies.
- BioNTech will work with China's Fosun Pharma to commercialize the vaccine — dubbed BNT162 — in China and is in "advanced discussions" with existing partner Pfizer to do the same elsewhere. BioNTech will start human testing of the vaccine candidate next month.
- The coronavirus outbreak has hit the stock market hard. But the blow has been softer for the makers of mRNA vaccines, which, though unproven, can be manufactured and tested faster than typical vaccines. BioNTech shares climbed 29% in early trading Monday, even as the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted another 9%.
Like rival Moderna, BioNTech has ridden interest in messenger RNA technology — meant to coax the body into producing its own disease-fighting proteins — to lofty financial heights. The firm raised more than $740 million in private financing, according to Crunchbase, before an initial public offering last year valued the company at $3.4 billion.
BioNTech's valuation has since doubled, and surged another 29% to about $40 per share midday Monday. The reason: it officially joined the fight against the new coronavirus, which has fast become a global pandemic. And like Moderna, BioNTech is doing so with speed. The first human tests of its mRNA vaccine candidate for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, should begin in late April, assuming approval from regulators.
The first trial of Moderna's experimental COVID-19 was set to start Monday, according to an Associated Press report. CureVac, another mRNA company, on Sunday said in a statement that "internal efforts" are underway to create a COVID-19 vaccine as well, though studies may not begin until the "early summer."
Initiating human trials is only one step in the long process of proving the safety and efficacy of a new therapeutic. Still, the timeframes to beginning testing for Moderna, BioNTech and CureVac are faster than typical for traditional vaccines.
That's possible not only because of mRNA technology, but because the sense of urgency surrounding the pandemic is causing drugmakers to consider alternative approaches. Moderna, for instance, is reportedly starting its trial before completing animal studies. That atypical strategy amplifies an important caveat: No one yet knows for certain whether mRNA vaccines work to protect against disease, or if they'll cause any unintended harm.
Nonetheless, the race is on. BioNTech is getting a $50 million investment from Fosun Pharma to advance BNT162 in China, and could get a total of $135 million in upfront and near-term cash. That deal is part of a plan to make a vaccine available "as quickly as possible worldwide," according to its statement. And it will include efforts in the U.S. and Europe, which is presumably where Pfizer will help.
BioNTech hasn't announced a deal with the pharma giant yet, just that the two, which first aligned on mRNA flu vaccines in 2018, are in advanced discussions. Pfizer on Friday only said that it is "engaged" with BioNTech on a coronavirus vaccine.
BioNTech is also working on therapeutics for people already infected with the virus, and will give more details on those efforts "in the coming weeks," founder and CEO Ugur Sahin said in a statement.