- Competitors are catching up to Moderna, which for months has been leading the race for a coronavirus vaccine.
- The New York pharma giant Pfizer on Wednesday released early human results for its vaccine candidate.
- Pfizer is using the same vaccine technology, called messenger RNA, as Moderna.
- Pfizer, a $190 billion drugmaker, is also planning to start late-stage efficacy trials this month, the same development timeline as Moderna.
- The stock market seemed to reflect these changing dynamics Wednesday. Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech saw their share prices increase by 5% and 7% respectively, while Moderna’s stock dipped 6%.
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Throughout the first months of the coronavirus outbreak, Moderna stood alone.
From the beginning of the sprint to develop a vaccine, the upstart Massachusetts biotech was a leader. On January 23, it announced its plans to create a vaccine alongside US National Institutes of Health researchers.
Moderna was the first company to start testing an experimental shot in humans in March and the first to detail human results a couple months later. It cemented its front-runner status by building a vaccine in record time, using an unproven yet promising technology called messenger RNA.
Investors pushed its stock to record highs. Even though Moderna has no federally approved drugs or vaccines, it climbed to a $23 billion valuation, and its stock has tripled since the start of the year.
But the landscape has changed dramatically six months into the outbreak. There are about 150 coronavirus vaccine programs, with 17 candidates in human testing, according to the World Health Organization. And Moderna isn’t alone with its genetic platform. Four other programs already in human testing are also using mRNA vaccines.
On Wednesday, Pfizer showed how intense the race for a vaccine has gotten, detailing early human results from its own vaccine candidate.
The New York pharma giant announced its research plans the same week that Moderna dosed the first volunteers in March. But with the resources of a $190 billion pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer has caught up to Moderna.
The stock market seemed to reflect these changing dynamics on Wednesday. Pfizer and BioNTech saw their share prices increase by 4% and 2.4%, respectively, while Moderna’s stock declined 5%.
Pfizer and Moderna have equally fast development timelines for vaccines using the same technology
Pfizer partnered with BioNTech, a German biotech specializing in mRNA, to develop a vaccine that uses the same technology as Moderna’s.
The timelines for the two vaccine programs are now basically the same. Both Pfizer and Moderna hope to start late-stage trials this month, which involves testing the vaccines in thousands of volunteers to see whether they work. If they do, the companies have said their vaccines could be ready in fall for emergency use in limited quantities.
In some ways, Pfizer is ahead of the biotech. Moderna gave a brief description of its data in May, opening it to criticism of “publication by press release.” While CEO Stephane Bancel said the data would soon be published by NIH, that has yet to happen.
Pfizer’s release was accompanied by a scientific paper, albeit a version that has yet to be reviewed by other scientists or published in a journal.
Given the limited data disclosed, Pfizer’s vaccine could be “more potent” than Moderna’s vaccine candidate, SVB Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges said in a Wednesday note to investors. He said it was difficult to draw conclusions yet, given the preliminary nature of the early data.
Jefferies analyst Michael Yee also said Pfizer’s results “are consistent and at least as good (or higher)” than Moderna’s description.
To be clear, it’s far from certain that either vaccine will work. These early-stage tests are designed to measure whether the vaccines are safe for people to take and whether they generate a response from the body’s immune system. Vaccines require massive trials to determine if they can prevent infections or disease.
To be sure, company executives in the vaccine race have emphasized that more than one vaccine will be needed. Any successful effort is expected to face global demand that will outstrip supply.
AstraZeneca, another pharma giant that dwarfs Moderna, is also working on a vaccine and hopes to have one ready in fall for emergency use.
Could there be a new front-runner in the vaccine sprint?
The next challenge facing Pfizer and Moderna is enrolling up to 30,000 people in massive clinical trials starting this month.
To quickly sign up that many volunteers, the companies will need to work with dozens, if not hundreds, of trial sites around the world.
In that space, Pfizer seems to have an edge. As one of the largest vaccine makers, carrying out the logistics of a large global trial is nothing new for Pfizer. On a Wednesday call with investors, Pfizer’s head of vaccine research and development, Kathrin Jansen, estimated it could take as little as four weeks to fully enroll a late-stage trial.
Moderna, on the other hand, is going into uncharted waters. Since its founding in 2010, the company has yet to move any medicine into a phase three study.
Both companies are working with the US government as part of Operation Warp Speed, an initiative to have 300 million doses of a safe and effective vaccine by January. It remains unclear how much support this program will bring to late-stage trials.
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