Astra, Glaxo Join Rush Back to Lab to Target Covid Variants
Representational image: A healthcare holds vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Germany. (Photographer: Alex Kraus/Bloomberg)

Astra, Glaxo Join Rush Back to Lab to Target Covid Variants

AstraZeneca Plc and GlaxoSmithKline Plc joined the rush to develop a new generation of vaccines against emerging variants of the coronavirus that could make the first shots less effective.

AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford are planning to have a shot available by the fall, in time for the next round of immunizations that may be required before winter. U.K. rival Glaxo and Germany’s CureVac NV teamed up to create next-generation messenger RNA vaccines to combat new strains.

Drugmakers are racing to catch up amid concern that new and potentially more dangerous variants might diminish the effectiveness of some shots. So far, they’ve said there’s no evidence the existing vaccines won’t work against a new strain first identified in the U.K., though a mutant version that originated in South Africa has proven potentially more problematic. In late January, Moderna Inc. started work on a booster shot for the South Africa strain.

“This is going to be an ongoing challenge, to follow what the virus is doing and make sure we’re prepared to generate new versions as we need them,” said Andrew Pollard, chief investigator of the Oxford Covid vaccine trials, in a briefing on Wednesday. Switching out the genome sequence, manufacturing and completing new studies for a vaccine against variants should be fairly quick for existing vaccines, he said, with clinical trials only involving hundreds of people instead of the tens of thousands required for the initial approvals.

More Doses

Glaxo and CureVac aim to have a next-generation candidate approved by 2022 as part of a 150 million-euro ($180 million) collaboration, according to a statement Wednesday. Glaxo this year also plans to help manufacture as many as 100 million doses of CureVac’s current mRNA Covid vaccine, which is still in late-stage trials and could be approved as soon as March.

Glaxo shares fell as much as 4.7% after the company said it expects profit to fall this year as it increases research spending in pursuit of the next blockbusters. Earnings per share, excluding some costs, are expected to decline by a mid- to high-single digit percentage.

Astra, Glaxo Join Rush Back to Lab to Target Covid Variants

The U.K. drugs giant, which also has partnerships with companies including Sanofi, Canada’s Medicago Inc. and China’s Sichuan Clover Biopharmaceuticals Inc. to create Covid-19 vaccines or possible antibody treatments, is in talks with other companies to help with manufacturing of protective shots, Chief Executive Officer Emma Walmsley said on a call.

The vaccine with Sanofi is facing months of delays after a dosing error in a clinical trial last year and probably won’t reach the market until the last quarter of this year, assuming it proves effective.

With CureVac, the aim is to use novel mRNA technology to develop products that target multiple variants in one vaccine. The immunizations may be used to protect people who haven’t been inoculated or as booster shots if immunity from other vaccines wanes, they said. The pair will also investigate mRNA vaccines to protect against other respiratory viruses beyond Covid.

Spike Protein

The approach gives cells instructions to create the spike protein found on the surface of the virus, relying on the body to make its own vaccine. A so-called multivalent shot would aim to build broader protection against multiple variants by instructing different spike proteins to be made.

For CureVac’s existing vaccine, Glaxo will help with the part of the process in which the shots are put into vials and packaged, known as fill and finish. The 100 million doses are included in the 300 million CureVac was already planning to produce this year. In helping CureVac manufacture its current shot, the British pharma giant follows Sanofi, Novartis AG and Bayer AG in throwing its weight behind another company’s Covid vaccines, potentially accelerating the rollout.

Bayer also announced plans earlier this week to produce CureVac’s potential vaccine. The German pharma giant has never made vaccines before, and is in the process of acquiring the equipment needed for a plant in Germany. Bayer’s first doses of CureVac’s shot could be ready by the end of this year. CureVac is planning to manufacture 1 billion doses in 2022 plus the contribution from Bayer.

Two other key mRNA Covid-19 vaccines from Pfizer Inc. and German partner BioNTech SE, and from Moderna have been approved for use in multiple countries. Both are investigating how they can tackle the new variants. Moderna’s chief scientific officer told investors last month the company was looking at the possibility of creating a multivalent vaccine.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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