How Novavax is pulling out all the stops to produce a coronavirus vaccine by next year

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Novavax (NVAX), the latest company to enter the increasingly crowded field to produce a coronavirus vaccine, is juggling multiple pieces in order to meet an aggressive development timeline, CEO Stanley Erck explained to Yahoo Finance on Thursday.

This week, the biotech company entered into clinical trials in Australia, making it one of a dozen companies to do so out of more than 100 existing vaccine candidates. Like other drug candidates, Novavax’s experimental treatment is being produced at risk in order to meet unprecedented demand, with the COVID-19 crisis sickening nearly 6 million worldwide, and killing over 350,000.

Experts say the chances for a successful vaccine materializing this year are aspirational at best. Yet if all goes according to plan, Novavax anticipates being able to produce 100 million doses in 2020, mostly for frontline workers, and 1 billion doses by 2021.

The company relied on pre-clinical data to inform its decision to start manufacturing, adopting a strategy of running things “in parallel, not in sequence,” Erck told Yahoo Finance’s “On The Move” on Thursday.

“We recognize…if we waited until we got Phase 1 human data, we would lose six months. We think six months is too important in a pandemic,” he added.

The company’s aggressive timeline relies on ramping up global manufacturing — including partnerships in China and India. A plant in the Czech Republic should be up and running by October, and able to produce 100 million vaccines per month by January, Erck said.

The U.S. death count from coronavirus has now passed 100,000. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)
The U.S. death count from coronavirus has now passed 100,000. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

‘Better than zero’

The end-goal of creating an effective vaccine can mean that the results can vary widely. The known effectiveness of any one vaccine in development is still largely unknown, as many of the trials are still ongoing. However, Moderna (MRNA) — one of the leading candidates in the global vaccine race — has sparked big hopes with its initial positive results.

Erck told Yahoo Finance that an effective rate for childhood doses is upwards of 95% immunity, while a flu treatment can range yearly, depending on the strain.

“The effectiveness of flu ranges anywhere from 10% to 50 or 60%. But that’s better than zero,” the CEO said. “If you had a vaccine that worked 40 or 50% of the time, versus nothing, you’ve got something that’s really important.”

The vaccine requires a multi-step process of between 30 to 60 days to manufacture and package, Erck said. However, he expects it will be ready for widespread distribution by first quarter 2021.

The company emerged as one of the frontrunners among smaller biotechs early in the year, receiving the largest amount of funding — $388 million — from a Gates-backed European on-profit, CEPI. Novavax has previously worked on coronavirus vaccines using its recombinant technology, and is also working on a late-stage flu vaccine.

Those factors have helped light a fire under a soaring stock price, which has raised Novavax’s market cap from $300 million to $2.4 billion.

The company also announced an acquisition of a manufacturing plant in the Czech Republic, from Indian-based Poonawalla Group, which also owns the Serum Institute of India. The Serum Institute is partnering with Oxford University to produce one of dozens of vaccine candidates in the works worldwide.

The global manufacturing strategy has been important in light of current geopolitical tensions that are complicating the fight to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Erck said he is concerned about how those tensions could play a role and is ensuring the company “won’t be contained by border closings.”

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