It’s another week in the desperate race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, and hope is creeping higher as a 10th promising vaccine entering a global human trial and two new efforts were announced by an American pharmaceutical giant.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, an experimental vaccine made by Maryland-based biotech firm Novavax started phase 1 clinical trial in Australia. The trial plans to enroll approximately 130 volunteers, with results coming out as soon as July. If phase 1 is successful, Novavax will move on to a phase 2 trial in more countries, including the U.S.
The vaccine, called NVX‑CoV2373, proved to produce high levels of neutralizing antibodies against COVID-19 in pre-clinical testing. “These results provide strong evidence that the vaccine candidate will be highly immunogenic in humans, leading to protection from COVID‑19 and thus helping to control the spread of this disease,” the company said in a statement on Monday.
Novavax’s vaccine effort is backed by $388 million from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation (CEPI), a nonprofit founded by Bill Gates. The billionaire philanthropist created the organization in 2015 to prepare the world for “a global respiratory epidemic,” which he prophetically warned about in a TED talk the same year.
The Novavax project is the CEPI’s largest investment to date. The funds are supposed to cover up to phase 2 clinical trial and production of millions of doses by the end of 2020, CEPI said in a funding announcement earlier this month.
Novovax is the 10th company worldwide that has a promising COVID-19 vaccine in clinical trials since the coronavirus outbreak. And more are expected to come.
On Tuesday morning, U.S. pharma giant Merck unveiled two vaccine candidates and a potential treatment. The announcement came notably late, considering Merck’s prominence in the pharmaceutical industry, but the company said it had intentionally taken it slow as it wanted to develop a reliable vaccine based on proven technology, rather than the highly innovative approaches taken by companies like Pfizer and Moderna.
“Our scientists have been engaged and focused on Covid-19 from the time we learned about it,” Merck CEO Ken Frazier said on Sunday, as quoted by Barron’s. “We’ve got to immunize seven billion people on the planet. If you have a dose that gives you a high amount of neutralizing antibodies with a single dose, that’s a much better, more simple to deploy vaccine, than one that requires multiple doses.”
One of Merck’s vaccine programs is a collaboration with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), which is expected to start Phase 1 human trial later this year. The other project is developed by Austrian biotech firm Themis Bioscience, which Merck is acquiring, in collaboration with French research institute Institut Pasteur. The Themis project is also partially funded by CEPI.
Several other COVID-19 vaccine efforts are also supported by American dollars. The U.S. government has funded two trial-stage vaccines, one by French drugmaker Sanofi and the other by British pharma giant AstraZeneca, to ensure that those vaccines would be available to American people first once approved.