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Many hoped the summer, along with its warmer weather, would bring better news for a pandemic-stricken nation. But as states launch reopenings, the number of coronavirus infections are rising in a number of areas. This, combined with many health experts anticipating a second wave of infections in the fall and winter, is notably concerning. As a result, a greater emphasis is being placed on the development of an effective coronavirus vaccine. And more than a dozen vaccine manufacturers are doing all they can to achieve this goal as soon as possible.

Despite these efforts, many question whether the development of a coronavirus vaccine within the year is even feasible. In the past, such a feat would have been impossible. But several companies are pursuing innovative approaches that could completely change the landscape for vaccine manufacturers of the future. If their gambles pay off, then the pipeline for new vaccine development could be dramatically shortened forever. From this perspective, the race for a coronavirus vaccine has public health implications that span well beyond the current pandemic. And because of this, the stakes for vaccine manufacturers are even higher.

“Because we have a number of these [vaccine trials], and they all use a different strategy, I am optimistic that at least one, maybe two, maybe three will come through looking like what we need. We want to hedge our bets by having a number of different approaches, so that it’s very likely that at least one of them — and maybe more — will work.” – Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health

Vaccine Manufacturers Explore Disruptive Technologies

From a historical perspective, vaccine manufacturers have explored a few ways to produce vaccines. In some cases, small pieces of living viruses are administered to trigger an immune response without causing an infection. In other instances, a killed virus might serve to do the same thing. These strategies worked well for a number of early vaccines developed in decades past. But as pathogens have evolved, these methods have become less effective. This is particularly true for viral diseases that get inside human cells to cause infection. Because the viral particles are inside cells, the immune system may not recognize the cells as being infected until later. This is one reason why developing a coronavirus vaccine is so challenging. It’s also why disruptive technologies are needed.

A scientist in full protective gear uses a microscope
How soon will it take for a coronavirus vaccine to be developed? Hopefully not long!

One solution to this problem has been to make a vaccine out of a virus that is very weak or ineffective. The virus contains the antigen that triggers the immune response needed, but the virus itself is unable to cause any harm. Vaccine manufacturers call this a “non-replicating viral vector,” and it has been one recent strategy used. Specifically, the flu shot that most of us receive each year is this type of vaccine. And some current vaccine manufacturers are pursuing similar strategies for a coronavirus vaccine. While this may be effective, this approach is time consuming. Because virus particles must be cultured, the process generally takes years to ramp up even if found to be effective.

Due to the urgency associated with a coronavirus vaccine development, a number of vaccine manufacturers are trying more novel approaches. In fact, several leading companies are trying to develop a vaccine using a messenger RNA (mRNA) protein. Messenger RNA is responsible for making proteins and antigens within cells. Thus, the hope is to give a specific mRNA that causes cells to produce a specific viral antigen. Using this approach, immune protection against a virus would develop in response to the antigen without ever having to be exposed to the actual virus. Not only is this promising because of this, but mRNA vaccines would be much faster and easier to produce. As a result, several vaccine manufacturers are employing this strategy in their coronavirus vaccine efforts.

“Since RNA vaccines are a disruptive technology as they do not require cell culture, utilize synthetic delivery, and have a smaller manufacturing footprint, our partnership with PNI to advance a mRNA-LNP vaccine candidate will not only help accelerate the process, but will also potentially revolutionize the vaccine industry.” – Xuefeng Yu, Ph.D., Cofounder, Chairman and CEO of CanSino Biologics

Major Candidates for an Effective Coronavirus Vaccine

In total, there are over 120 candidate coronavirus vaccines currently being considered. However, only 10 research pharmaceutical companies and partnerships have active trials ongoing. Of these, four are within the U.S., five are within China, and one is in the U.K. Some of the more noteworthy ones involve the following:

  • Moderna – This company is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is among the smallest company leading the pack. It has partnered with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in making a mRNA coronavirus vaccine. Not only does its results from animal studies look promising. Moderna is also ramping up manufacturing efforts even before its vaccine is proven effective and safe.
  • AstraZeneca – Based in the U.K., AstraZeneca is well known among vaccine manufacturers. Its coronavirus vaccine approach involves a non-replicating viral vector rather than a mRNA type. But it has tremendous resources and has partnered with the University of Oxford in its efforts. As a result, its vaccine trials are moving along quickly as well.
  • CanSino Biologics – Based in China, this company has partnered with the Beijing Institute of Biotechnologies. Its animal studies have also demonstrated progress, and it is running neck-and-neck with Moderna for the lead among vaccine manufacturers. Interestingly, CanSino began pursuing a non-replicating viral vector vaccine. But since, it has partnered with Precision Nanosystems to create a mRNA vaccine as well. CanSino is clearly hedging its bets.
  • Pfizer/BioNTech – The partnership between Pfizer and BioNTech formed in an effort to pursue a nano-particle mRNA coronavirus vaccine quickly. Pfizer was also listed among the five companies receiving funding from President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed program. Their current vaccine candidate is already in phase I and phase II trials. Given its extensive financial resources and R&D capabilities, Pfizer is also considered one of the top vaccine manufacturers to succeed.
  • CureVac – Another leader among vaccine manufacturers is the German-based pharmaceutical company CureVac. Germany is highly invested in CureVac’s efforts, and its animal trials are showing great promise. In fact, its mRNA coronavirus vaccine produced high levels of protective antibodies against COVID-19 in these experiments. Likewise, CureVac is also prepared to produce hundreds of millions of vaccines if its candidate is proven effective and safe.

Big Problem, Big Money, Tremendous Anticipation

In total, it has been estimated that over $4.4 billion has already been awarded vaccine manufacturers from governments and philanthropists. Likewise, companies that develop an effective coronavirus vaccine will be in a favorable position financially for years to come. Given the economic impact of the pandemic, all nations wait in eager anticipation for such a vaccine to arrive. Though the timing of its arrival remains uncertain, it’s clear companies are making bold strides in developing a coronavirus vaccine. All in all, the progress looks to be quite favorable.

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