Biotech Companies Hasten Their Work on COVID-19 Vaccine and Testing
Jacob Bourne posted on March 18, 2020 |
Human trials for a vaccine could begin as early as this spring.

In light of the World Health Organization’s declaration of COVID-19 a global pandemic—with 184,976 cases and 7,529 deaths spanning 159 countries—biotech companies are ramping up their efforts to develop a vaccine and more effective tests. Although governments around the world are deploying measures to halt the spread of the disease, many infectious disease experts have voiced a grim outlook. Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard University epidemiologist, said that between 40 and 70 percent of the world’s adult population could become infected. Amidst mounting concerns, several companies, including Moderna, Novavax, Inovio, GlaxoSmithKline and Gilead, are making development of a COVID-19 vaccine their top priority, while others have new tests available.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) recently awarded Novavax with a $4 million grant for vaccine development using the company’s proprietary Matrix-M, an adjuvant that works by boosting immune response with enhanced antigen action in lymph nodes. Novavax is currently testing multiple vaccines in animals prior to starting human trials, which could begin this spring.

“This first stage of funding from CEPI is critical to enable ongoing development of our COVID-19 vaccine candidates,” said Stanley C. Erck, president and CEO of Novavax.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is also working with CEPI by making its adjuvant technology available to other entities receiving CEPI funding, fueling a collaborative effort to get a vaccine off the ground as quickly as possible. “Our adjuvant technology has previously been used successfully in the pandemic flu setting,” stated Thomas Breuer, chief medical officer, GSK Vaccines. “It enables using only small quantities of the vaccine antigen, which allows the production of more doses of the vaccine—a crucial advantage in a pandemic.”

Inovio is putting a $5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation toward the testing and scaling up of CELLECTRA 3PSP, a “user-friendly” handheld digital device that is designed to deliver INO-4800, a DNA vaccine for COVID-19 that’s still in preclinical testing. The company also received $9 million from CEPI for the advancement of CELLECTRA 3PSP, and expects doses to be available by the end of the year.

“Our team of vaccine experts are working around the clock to advance INO-4800, and we look forward to attracting additional partnerships to expedite its development to meet this urgent global health need,” said Dr. J. Joseph Kim, INOVIO’s president and CEO.

Vaccine development is just one part of the rush to harness biotechnology to defeat COVID-19, as many countries including the U.S. are experiencing a severe shortage of coronavirus test kits. Most tests rely on a swab of the upper respiratory tract followed by a 48-hour wait for test results. Co-Diagnostics, Inc. has released its CE-IVD Logix Smart test that employs AI to deliver results in about 90 minutes. Another company, Aytu Bioscience, recently announced that it can test for the virus in as little as two minutes using only a drop of blood from a finger prick.

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