Nov 5, 2021 - Health

The new COVID vaccine rivals

Illustration of syringe with dollar signs, almost empty.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Rival vaccine makers are trying to elbow into the massive COVID-19 market, arguing for federal funding and claiming advantages over the current choices in the U.S.

Why it matters: There's huge remaining demand around the world, and researchers say there should be more support — including money — from the Biden administration to fill it.

State of play: Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson developed highly effective vaccines at record speed, and have produced more than enough doses to vaccinate every American.

Yes, but: The rest of the world isn't getting the doses it needs from the U.S., and it's in America's interests to get as much of the world vaccinated as quickly as possible because of new variants.

  • New competitors say they can help fill that gap, but not without the kind of intense investments that helped the Big 3 get there.

What they're saying: "I feel like we've gotten on the deck of the aircraft carrier and declared 'Mission Accomplished' and it's just not," said Corey Casper, CEO of the Seattle-based Infectious Disease Research Institute, a nonprofit biotech organization.

Details: IDRI has partnered with the company ImmunityBio on what it calls "next-generation" vaccine candidates.

  • Another new candidate, based on "old school" technology, was developed at the Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development and spun out to a network for manufacturers in developing nations. They partnered with vaccine maker, Biological E in India and could get emergency approval there soon.
  • Both IDRI and Texas Children's researchers say they've got candidates that are more scalable than the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, and which don't require the same cold storage.
  • Casper said IDRI's technology, which is set to begin phase 1/2 clinical trials soon, could be even more durable against COVID and its future variants. And it could scale up to 1 billion doses within six months — and even faster with government assistance. But so far, they've gotten none, Casper said.
  • Peter Hotez, a vaccine researcher at the Baylor College of Medicine who helped develop the Texas COVID-19 vaccine candidate, shared his frustrations.
  • "[Our vaccine] checks every global health box there is," Hotez said. "It's trusted and it works. And yet, everyone's focused on the shiny new toys."

The concern has gotten the attention of at least some members of Congress.

  • "I'm worried that we're prioritizing vaccine technology that may not necessarily be feasible to bring this pandemic to a close globally," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said during a Senate committee hearing on Thursday.

The other side: A senior health official for the Biden administration told Axios that Operation Warp Speed, now known as the Countermeasures Acceleration Group, is still working with other vaccine developers.

  • "This administration is investing in a unique, whole of government approach to develop new COVID-19 treatments and to respond to the health needs of the public," an HHS spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
  • The FDA has issued guidelines to help developers navigate the process, and the NIH has announced $36 million in awards to academic institutions researching pan-coronavirus vaccines.
  • "This remains a critical priority as we work to get control of this pandemic and prepare for future needs related to this virus, and will continue to innovate and adapt to meet those needs," the official said.

But, but, but: Hotez and Casper said they've seen a lack of support and urgency from administration officials and believe more interest, and money, needs to return to projects that are closer to becoming a reality.

  • "We're getting contacted weekly now by ministers of health and ministers of science who now realize that vaccines aren't coming," Hotez said. "It's a wonderful feeling to be able to make a difference in the world. The bizarre thing is the lack of engagement from the U.S. government."
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