- Pfizer and BioNTech, makers of one of the most widely used vaccines for COVID-19, are betting the technology that shot is based on can help them make a better vaccine for shingles, a disease triggered by a chronic form of the virus that causes chickenpox.
- In an agreement announced Wednesday, Pfizer will invest $150 million in BioNTech and pay the German biotech $75 million more to use its messenger RNA platform to develop a shingles vaccine. The pharma giant will bring its own technology to the collaboration, which is the companies' third after previous partnerships on COVID-19 and influenza.
- Under terms of the collaboration, Pfizer and BioNTech will split development costs for the vaccine, which they aim to advance into clinical tests by the second half of the year. Should the shot prove successful in trials and reach market, the companies will share profits as well.
The success of messenger RNA-based vaccines for COVID-19 is pushing large drugmakers to examine where else the technology may have an impact. Both Pfizer, with BioNTech, and Moderna aim to use mRNA in vaccines for seasonal flu, for instance. Sanofi, which just bought mRNA specialist Translate Bio for $3.2 billion, is too.
For Pfizer and BioNTech, shingles is the next target. The disease, caused by activation of the herpes zoster virus, is painful, can be disfiguring and affects about one in three Americans over their lifetimes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's more common in older adults.
There's also a highly effective vaccine available from GlaxoSmithKline called Shingrix. Since the Food and Drug Administration approved the shot in 2017, it's been widely adopted for use; so much so that rival Merck & Co. stopped selling its competing vaccine Zostavax a few years later. GSK even had trouble making supplies fast enough to keep up with demand initially.
While sales have gone up and down as COVID-19's spread impacted more routine vaccinations, Shingrix is now a major product for GSK, accounting for nearly a quarter of the British drugmaker's overall vaccine sales through the first nine months of 2021.
And the company is confident Shingrix can hold off competitors, even would-be mRNA shots. "I think the benchmark on the efficacy is really very, very high and going to be difficult to match, to be honest," Roger Connor, GSK's president of global vaccines, said on a conference call last April. "It's a very high bar for mRNA to come after."
But Shingrix also tends to trigger some side effects, like pain, fever and chills, that can last for a few days. Pfizer and BioNTech argue there's still room to develop an improved vaccine with better efficacy and tolerability. The companies also highlighted the potential for an mRNA vaccine to be "more efficient to produce globally," something the companies have proven with their COVID-19 shot.
The planned vaccine will be built upon BioNTech's mRNA platform but also incorporate "antigen technology" developed by Pfizer's scientists, for which the biotech will pay Pfizer $25 million to access. Antigens are molecules that trigger an immune response in the body.
Shares in Pfizer were up 3% in Wednesday morning trading, while BioNTech's rose by 1.5%.