British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is teaming up with Germany’s CureVac to create a new COVID-19 vaccine to tackle multiple new variants of the coronavirus, including the dangerous B.1.351 strain first spotted in South Africa.
The two companies announced a $180 million partnership to develop the new vaccine on Wednesday. Pending regulatory approvals, it could clear clinical trials and reach the market in 2022.
“We believe that next-generation vaccines will be crucial in the continued fight against COVID-19,” GSK CEO Emma Walmsley said in a statement. “This new collaboration builds on our existing relationship with CureVac and means that together, we will combine our scientific expertise in mRNA and vaccine development to advance and accelerate the development of new COVID-19 vaccine candidates.”
Under the agreement, GSK will pay CureVec an upfront payment of $90 million in exchange for exclusive rights to develop, manufacture and commercialize the next-generation vaccine globally (except Germany, Austria, and Switzerland). It will pay the remaining $90 million on the condition that CureVec meets specific milestones.
GSK is already in partnership with CureVec on a first-generation COVID vaccine, which is currently tested in phase 2 trials in Europe and Latin America. The vaccine is based on the same messenger RNA technology as Moderna’s and Pfizer’s approved shots, but it can be stored at normal refrigerator temperature, making it much easier to distribute. CureVec expects to have interim trial data before the end of March, and GSK plans to produce 100 million doses of the vaccine this year.
GSK said the next-generation vaccine will be used to either protect people who have never been vaccinated before or serve as a booster shot in the event that first-generation vaccines fail to protect against new viral strains.
A pair of emerging COVID-19 variants first spotted in Britain and South Africa are believed to be contributing to the latest surge of new infection globally. Lab tests and clinical trials have found that existing vaccines see a sharp drop in efficacy on these variants, especially the South African strain. Studies by researchers in South Africa have also found that the local variant was highly resistant to antibodies generated by an earlier infection, meaning that people who have contracted the original coronavirus and recovered could be infected again by the new viral strain.
Moderna, whose mRNA-1273 vaccine saw a sixfold decrease in the antibodies’ ability to block the South African variant in a lab dish, is working on two new vaccines targeting the variant specifically.
“The virus is changing its stripes, and we will change to make sure we can beat the virus where it’s going,” Moderna president Stephen Hoge said in an interview last week. “What we’re trying to do is create an option.”