Who are the vaccine frontrunners and how promising are their developed prototypes – that’s what we’re going to discover
Citizens of the whole world have held their breath waiting for the COVID-19 vaccine. A few globally recognized companies have committed to providing a panacea to the global madness caused by this vicious new virus. They are heavily subsidized by governments and private entities alike since everyone wants the pandemic to end. There are currently 236 vaccines in development with 40 of them being in some phase of the clinical testing already.
This American biotechnology company based in Cambridge develops vaccines based exclusively on messenger RNA (mRNA). It’s been working on the COVID-19 vaccine in cooperation with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) since January. In March the scientists started human testing. The company got encouraged when, in summer, their prototype showed its efficiency on monkeys.
The vaccine contains genetic instructions for building a coronavirus protein, known as a spike. The immune system then is bound to respond and develop antibodies. Moderna’s prototype has one significant advantage over similar medical products. It could be stored at refrigerator temperatures for up to a month, while some other prospective candidates require ultra-cold storage containers.
The most recent update on Phase 3 of clinical trials is very promising. The impressive efficiency of 94.5% has prompted the company to seek Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) with the US FDA. However, the FDA members were previously hesitant to grant early approval to any candidate. They consider doing so could interfere with ongoing trials. Therefore, it’s still unknown when the vaccine can get to the general public.
Meanwhile, the company’s quick and effective response to the global collapse has triggered an increased interest of investors. The shares first went up in early spring as the vaccine started showing positive dynamics. After the latest press release, the stock price surged over 10%. Currently, it is over $98 per share, while the peak performance was $103. Compared to the last year, the stock price skyrocketed over 370% while the company’s market cap rose to $38.63B with robust investments from the US government.
Pfizer and BioNTech
A few days ago, American multinational pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer and German biotechnology company Biopharmaceutical New Technologies (BioNTech) announced that their mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate demonstrates 95% efficiency against COVID-19. Furthermore, the companies reached the safety milestone required by the US FDA for Emergency Use Authorization and are going to submit the data for approval in the US as well as report to other regulatory agencies around the world. Jointly, the producers can make up to 50 million doses in 2020 and 1.3 billion doses in 2021. US, Japan, Canada, and the EU have already made some deals with Pfizer/BioNTech development group for supplementation of at least 100 million doses.
Pfizer Inc. engages in the discovery, development, and manufacture of healthcare products while specializing in medicines, vaccines, and consumer healthcare. The good news about the COVID-19 prototype caused Pfizer’s share price to jump nearly 8% in mid-November. However, after the rush of enthusiasm, the stock price started to gradually fall. The news about the Moderna vaccine with almost the same efficacy but the much better logistic potential has undermined Pfizer’s unique status. Currently, its share price equals $36.6, almost the same as a year ago.
BioNTech, on the other hand, is showing positive share dynamics. The current $104.75 price is a 401.54% increase over 1 year. This German company develops pharmaceutical candidates based on messenger RNA (mRNA) for use as individualized cancer immunotherapies, vaccines against infectious diseases, protein replacement therapies for rare diseases, etc. It also engineered cell therapy, novel antibodies, and small molecule immunomodulators as treatment options for cancer. Combating the two most pressing healthcare issues of the modern world gives BioNTech an advantage over its closest rivals.
The multinational Swedish-British biopharmaceutical company has been among the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies since its merger in 1999. It offers a range of medical treatment products for oncology; cardiovascular, renal, and metabolism (CVRM) diseases; respiratory diseases, and immunology. AstraZeneca’s products also address neuroscience issues, some inflammatory diseases, and infections, particularly those resistant to current antibiotics. The company has previously worked with influenza vaccines.
Together with the University of Oxford, the European biopharmaceutical leader has started developing its experimental COVID-19 vaccine in April. The first results from Phase 3 trials may seem not as impressive as its counterparts mentioned before. Nevertheless, even at this rate, the candidate can save millions of lives. Moreover, if the initial test results confirm, it could prove to be more affordable since less than two doses are required. It also means that more people could be vaccinated without increasing the planned vaccine supply.
The total vaccine efficacy is 70%. The results comprise data from two dosing regimes. In the first dosing scenario, the volunteers had a full dose injected twice with a one-month interval. This proved effective only for 62%. The second variant involved a half-dose first and a full dose of the vaccine later. In the latter case, efficiency had a higher 90% rate. Both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s prototypes need two full doses to create a proper immune reaction.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine candidate also uses a different technology than Pfizer and Moderna do. Instead of mRNA, viral vector technology deploys an altered common cold virus to carry the genetic material of the coronavirus and produce an immune response.
As the company will seek an Emergency Use Listing from the World Health Organization to accelerated vaccine availability in low-income countries, investors are now pondering over its stock potential. AstraZeneca’s shares started increasing in late April when the vaccine collaboration was announced and reached a peak in mid-July when early human testing showed promising results. The stock has expectedly dropped in November after the impressive data releases from Pfizer and Moderna. Investors’ doubts about the new vaccine market competitiveness brought AstraZeneca’s stock rate to $55.30. During the last 5-day period, its performance has fallen by 1.76%. At the same time, the stock price has risen around 9% since the same period last year.
Sinovac Biotech Ltd. is a China-based biopharmaceutical company that focuses on the research, development, manufacture, and sales of vaccines for infectious diseases. Its COVID-19 vaccine is among the few that had already entered Phase 3 clinical trials. However, the results are available only for Phase 1/2. The firm stated it won’t be pressured by the recent Western reports and will release the relevant data only when it is assured to obtain enough number of qualified COVID-19 cases in its double-blind, placebo-controlled trials to certify vaccine effectiveness.
The speed of data acquisition depends on the severity of the epidemic situation in host countries (Brazil, Indonesia, and Turkey) and the enrollment schedule of volunteers in partnered institutions. For instance, in Brazil, the trials were temporarily suspended due to the death of a volunteer. They resumed as the death was proved unrelated to the vaccine use.
According to the officials, nearly 60,000 people had received a vaccine by early November. Although using more traditional methods than the US developments – a chemically inactivated version of the virus – the Chinese vaccine gives a “quick” response in the trials. The Sinovac representatives state the vaccinated people are developing virus-fighting antibodies within 14 days of receiving a dose. This would make the vaccine suitable for emergency use.
Despite the vaccine positive feedback and global anticipation, trading of the company’s stock didn’t resume at Nasdaq. Nasdaq halted trading in Sinovac stock in February 2019 due to the corporate-governance battle within the company and never reopened it. Current US-Chinese tension can’t improve the company’s position, for sure. Nevertheless, Sinovac has received $15 million in funding from Advantech Capital and Vivo Capital to advance the development of its COVID-19 vaccine.
Johnson & Johnson
It appears that Johnson & Johnson is not only good at making the no-tears shampoo. The world’s largest healthcare producer has also made a shot at combating the virus that put on masks on the whole world population. In fact, the American pharmaceutical giant has already been working on potential vaccines for other infectious diseases such as HIV, Ebola, Hepatitis B, etc. Since the beginning of the pandemic outbreak, the company started using its previous experience to develop an investigational COVID-19 vaccine candidate.
The vaccine is made and tested by the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. The JNJ vaccine candidate is based on the virus’s genetic instructions for building the spike protein. Namely, the vaccine uses double-stranded DNA of a modified adenovirus that can enter cells but can’t replicate inside them or cause illness. After the vaccine shot, the adenoviruses bump into cells and latch onto proteins on their surface. The cell sends out warning signals to activate immune cells nearby. It causes the immune system to react more strongly to the spike proteins. Other immune cells may bump into the coronavirus spikes on the surface of vaccinated cells or free-floating spike protein fragments. Thus, the immune cells can lock onto the spike proteins. They need further activation by helper T cells to proliferate and pour out antibodies that target the spike protein.
Currently, adenovirus-based vaccines are used against a wide variety of pathogens, including tuberculosis and HIV. Adenoviruses are generally considered a suitable vector for delivering target antigens to mammalian hosts because of their capability to induce both innate and adaptive immune systems.
The JNJ vaccine will be injected in either a single-shot or two-dose regime. Both variants are currently being tested. The candidate is expected to be stable for two years at -20°C and for up to three months in the 2°C to 8°C range used to store many biological substances.
On December 17, 2020, Johnson & Johnson announced the full enrollment was reached in the large-scale, pivotal, multi-country Phase 3 trial (ENSEMBLE) of its single-dose vaccine candidate with approximately 45,000 participants. The initial plan was to conduct the trial with 60,000 volunteers. However, the research team decided to cap the recruitment early due to the fact that Covid-19 is so pervasive across the country. The more virus cases there are in the U.S., the more likely it is that participants will be exposed to it, meaning researchers will be able to reach conclusions based on a smaller trial.
The data about vaccine effectiveness is supposed to be available by the end of January 2021. If the vaccine will prove to be safe and effective, the Company expects to submit an Emergency Use Authorization application to the U.S. FDA and other health regulatory bodies across the globe in February. Johnson & Johnson had already signed the communiqué with 15 other life science companies, along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to bring safe, effective, and affordable vaccines to lower-income countries on a not-for-profit basis for emergency pandemic use. The company plans to allocate up to 500 million vaccine doses at self-cost with delivery beginning mid next year.
The vaccine news supports the JNJ’s strong position on the stock market. Its shares plunged shortly this year but rose 4.8% in April after the drug and consumer products company reported first-quarter profit and sales that increased above expectations. The all-time high Johnson & Johnson stock closing price was $157.38 on December 31, 2020. It rose by 7.41% over a year.
The vaccine long-approved by Russian authorities was registered for emergency use in August 2020 before Phase 3 of clinical trials. Post-registration clinical trials involving more than 40,000 people in Russia and Belarus launched on August 25. Its clinical trials have also been announced in the UAE, India, and Venezuela. In December, the mass vaccination using Sputnik V started. Doctors, teachers, and social workers are among the first candidates to get a two-dose vaccine. Yet, some journalist reports show the number of volunteers is quite small so far. According to Statista, only 3 out of 10 Russians would agree to participate in the free mass vaccination, while over 40% of respondents certainly did not want to receive the vaccine in the near future.
The vaccine was patented by Gamaleya National Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology. Being named after the first Soviet space satellite, the Russian vaccine is supposed to start a new era in fighting COVID-19. In its essence, Sputnik V is an adenoviral vector-based vaccine, similar to the one developed by Johnson & Johnson. The gene from adenovirus, which causes the infection, is removed.
At the same time, a gene carrying the code of the coronavirus spike protein is inserted. This inserted element then gets inside human cells. It is safe for the body but still helps the immune system to react and produce antibodies. However, unlike the JNJ candidate, the Russian vaccine comprises two entirely different injections – using different carriers for the coronavirus each time. That could make the vaccine more effective.
According to the developers, the Sputnik V vaccine’s efficacy is 91.4%, rising to 100% when used against severe cases of coronavirus. However, as the Phase 3 trials are still ongoing, many scientists across the globe are skeptical about the data accuracy and the rush to lead the vaccination records.
Though the vaccine has to be stored at -18C at least in its liquid form, in a dry form it can be stored at a temperature of +2 to +8 degrees Celsius. That makes it possible to transfer Sputnik V internationally. Thus, more than 1.2 billion doses of the vaccine were ordered by over 50 countries. In October 2020, Russia applied for prequalification of Sputnik V at the WHO to speed up its availability worldwide.
However, according to the BBC, this more practical, powder version of the vaccine is not yet being made in large amounts. Overall, the vaccine is currently produced on a much smaller scale than initially planned since the two shots are completely different. While the first component is more stable, producing the second one requires some strict temperature regulation and longer brewing time inside the bioreactors. The biotech firms working on the task need to resolve this issue before scaling up.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which has been backing the vaccine and marketing it globally, reached an agreement with the Indian pharmaceutical company Hetero to produce more than 100 million Sputnik V doses per year in India. In Russia, a handful of private drug companies are entrusted with the production. Those include BIOCAD, a private-sector pharmaceutical company that hasn’t been involved in vaccine work before.
None of the companies dealing with the Sputnik V vaccine is publicly traded, so we can’t say whether the involvement affected their market position somehow. The sole (100%) shareholder of RDIF is the Russian Federation represented by the Federal Agency for State Property Management (Rosimushchestvo).