In China, COVID-19 Corona virus, Issues

BioNTech could begin clinical testing of a Covid-19 vaccine in late April © Andreas Arnold/dpa/Alamy

Chinese pharma buys $50m of equity in German group and invests more in development.

By Clive Cookson

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Published on the FT, Mar 16, 2020
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The race to produce a coronavirus vaccine accelerated on Monday when the German group BioNTech announced a $135m partnership with Fosun Pharma of China to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, which it said could begin clinical testing in late April.

Fosun will make a $50m equity investment in BioNTech and pay the Mainz-based company a further $85m in vaccine development and commercialisation fees.

The move came as more than 20 companies and public laboratories worldwide are already trying to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus as global anxiety about its spread continues to soar.

Several, including BioNTech, are using so-called mRNA technology, which stimulates the immune system to fight Covid-19 by injecting genes from the virus that help human cells recognise it.

The announcement came after a political storm at the weekend in Germany over alleged attempts by the US to persuade CureVac, another German biotech developing an mRNA coronavirus vaccine, to move its research across the Atlantic.

Pharmaceutical analysts at Berenberg said in a report: “BioNTech appears best positioned in the Covid-19 race owing to its diversified mRNA platform, delivery formulation and manufacturing capacity.”

BioNTech said that, if it received regulatory approval, it could begin clinical testing of its BNT162 vaccine on healthy volunteers next month, starting in Germany.

The first candidate vaccine for Covid-19, produced by Moderna in the US, starts clinical testing this week.

If BioNTech’s initial tests confirm that the vaccine is safe and elicits an immune response, more extensive clinical trials will take place in China in collaboration with Fosun, as well as in Europe and US. BioNTech is also in advanced talks to work on the coronavirus with Pfizer, the US pharmaceutical company with which it is already collaborating on flu vaccines.

Sean Marett, BioNTech’s chief business officer, told the Financial Times: “We’re talking with Pfizer to achieve what the US government wants — a vaccine on the market as soon as possible.”

But Mr Marett emphasised that the company’s aim is to make its vaccine available globally, rather than given priority to particular countries, whether Germany, China or the US.

“Our whole company is on a war footing to fight Covid-19,” he said. BioNTech expects to soon announce research on treatments for the disease, as opposed to vaccines.

Who should be first in line for vaccination when commercial quantities become available will be largely a matter for governments, said Hanneke Schuitemaker, head of viral vaccine discovery at Johnson & Johnson, the US pharma group that is also well placed in the Covid-19 vaccine race. “We might decide to do healthcare workers first,” she said.

Six other coronavirus vaccine development efforts are being funded by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a public-private-charity partnership set up three years ago to develop vaccines against emerging diseases. On Monday Cepi renewed its call for $2bn of new funding to develop Covid-19 vaccines with the aim of having at least three candidates ready for general use next year.

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