Pharmaceutical Companies Race to Develop a Vaccine for COVID-19

Date: May 8, 2020

Words: 2,000

Read Time: 4-6 Minutes


Viable Vaccines Have Been Tough to Find During the Past Decade of Viral Outbreaks

By the time the U.S. government announced they would be providing financial assistance for pharmaceutical companies working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, the race to create such a vaccine was already well underway.

The provisions that enabled funding for COVID-19 R&D efforts were introduced by the U.S. government through changes to an existing piece of legislation known as the BARDA Act. Those changes went into effect on March 4, 2020. However, that’s roughly four months after the virus was first reported within the Hubei province of China (aka “Ground Zero”).

In reality, pharmaceutical companies and research labs like those at Moderna started scrambling to find a COVID-19 cure as soon as January 2020, when the initial reports that managed to escape China told of a new respiratory disease with higher-than-average mortality rates and incredibly infectious symptoms.

Global COVID-19 Pandemic Tracker

The Johns Hopkins COVID-19 cases and mortality tracking interface.
Full stats available at covidtracker.com

Over the past decade, there have been other cases of viral outbreaks that have caused considerable concern for healthcare professionals. Some, like Ebola, brought incredibly painful and often deadly symptoms. Others, like COVID-19, are alarming because of how contagious they are and how rapidly they spread. But regardless of which virus scares you most, perhaps the scariest fact about them both is that to date, no tested and approved vaccines have been discovered.

During infectious outbreaks like SARS in China during 2003 and Ebola in Africa during 2015, governments and charities were pledging money and donations to help with R&D. Heightened media attention also helped bring considerable awareness to the cause. However, despite it now being 18 years after the SARS outbreak and 5 years after the last major Ebola outbreak, no outstanding research has produced a successful vaccine candidate.

Luckily, neither SARS or Ebola ever spread far enough or fast enough to seriously endanger the entire planet. SARS officially infected a total of 8,098 people and killed 774 during its 2003 outbreak, mainly in Asia. No Americans ever died. And Ebola, despite the media frenzy it produced and the danger it posed, killed “just” 11,300 people after infecting nearly 29,000. During that outbreak, the danger was largely contained to small regions within Africa.

Comparing Infection Rates of Recent Viruses

An overview of the infections and deaths for the last few major viral outbreaks in the world - including SARS, COVID-19, and Ebola.

However, while neither SARS or Ebola ever created a global pandemic, experts have long warned about the impact that a new virus, one that spreads faster than it can be detected and can compromise the immune systems of young and old alike, would have on the global population.

Which brings us to COVID-19 — a virus that, to date, has infected 4.1 million and killed nearly 300,000.

And it’s not over yet.

An Urgent Need, Combined With a Huge Financial Incentive

Although modern medicine continues to make incredible breakthroughs in combating diseases and enriching humans’ quality of life, our society is not so advanced that we can identify and cure new diseases in a few weeks.

Cured vs Uncured: Current State of Major Diseases & Viruses

An overview of various diseases and viruses that have been discovered over the past century, including Ebola, COVID-19, and Polio.

Even with billions in funding and the most powerful and advanced laboratories prioritizing R&D, it can take years or even decades for a vaccine to be discovered. To date, viruses like RSV and Ebola remain without a vaccine — and this comes despite decades of research and testing.

The long and arduous process for achieving regulatory approval doesn’t help matters either.

Because of what is often a long and frustrating process, research labs have historically taken an average of 12 years to advance new drug candidates through their “pipeline”. There are usually 3 experimental trials that need to be conducted (Stages I, II, and III), and the results in each test trial need to be positive. And even then, three successful trials just means the company can submit their New Drug Application (NDA) to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for approval. There’s no guarantee these get accepted, and many of these submissions are flagged and require corrections. Some still may never pass. In fact, recent data indicates that just 1 in 5,000 new drug candidates ever make it to U.S. commercialization.

Understanding New Drug Application Hurdles

An overview of the stages required for a pharmaceutical company to advance their clinical vaccine and drug candidates through FDA trials.

Because of the arduous process that it is, pharmaceutical labs and facilities need as much time as possible to develop vaccines that can be deployed for widespread use. Even with “fast-track” allowances that the FDA can give to companies to expedite the testing and approvals process, companies will still likely have to run through multiple experiments and trials to find a successful vaccine. This process takes time, and every time the trial fails, the process starts over.

In addition to regulatory hurdles, efforts to develop vaccines are often hindered by the financial constraints of the companies leading the charge. Thankfully, that’s not the case with Coronavirus. Instead, the allotment of what some might consider to be “lucrative” contracts for companies developing COVID-19 vaccines has spurred dozens of healthcare providers, pharmaceutical research labs, and other medical institutes to prioritize the research. And to date, a number of companies, both well-known and fairly new, have made encouraging progress.

Given the level of funding on the line, there have been allegations recently that several healthcare organizations have misled investors about their involvement with COVID-19 research exclusively for purposes of receiving boosting their share price, all while lacking any real intent to pursue a vaccine. It’s all just as much a financial numbers game as it is a medicinal development one — but regardless of one’s stance on that issue, the ultimate truth is that financial incentive is what ultimately drives most medical progress. And truly, the influx of billions of dollars to fight Coronavirus and develop a vaccine has been rewarded with a number of promising candidates.

Specifically, the trials of Moderna, Novavax, Gilead, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer.

Where the Most Promising COVID-19 Vaccinations Stand Today

At the time of this writing on May 1st, over 1.06 million Americans have become infected with Coronavirus and around 65,000 have died. However, there are also 89 biotech and pharmaceutical labs racing to develop a cure. 7 of those companies are already actively carrying out human clinical trials.

With CDC Director Anthony Fauci suggesting that a viable vaccine candidate could be ready by January 2021 and the UK believing they’ll know by July whether their experimental vaccine is working, it appears as though we should have a breakthrough in a matter of months, instead of years.

The Race to Develop a Coronavirus Cure

The four companies - Pfizer, Gilead Sciences, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson - that have progressed the farthest with their COVID-19 vaccine research.

At the moment, it’s companies like Johnson & Johnson, Gilead, and Pfizer that are leading the charge. However, other less widely known companies like Moderna and Novavax are making progress as well.

In mid-March, Moderna announced they had received nearly $500 million in funding from the U.S. government to advance to clinical trials of their drug candidate mRNA-1273. Other companies like Gilead have medications they were developing to combat other diseases and viruses that now appear to have an effect on combating COVID-19, though not always at statistically significant rates. Interestingly enough, Gilead’s drug Remdesivir was originally developed as a potential cure for Ebola. This is also how Novavax, another pharmaceutical company, came across their own experimental vaccine candidate.

For the most established and well-known medical brand names in the industry, like Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, financial investments have been extreme. In addition to recently announcing the investment of $50 million to frontline healthcare workers across the globe battling COVID-19, J&J has partnered with BARDA to donate more than $1 billion dollars to COVID-19 research. They also have a drug candidate expect to go into human clinical trials this fall.

For Pfizer, the company expects to have 10-20 million doses of their experimental vaccine prepared for global distribution by EOY 2020. Although their drug has not yet passed trials, they are counting on successful tests and are preparing to move fast once they receive the green light.

CDC Head Dr. Fauci Talks About Finding a COVID-19 Vaccine

Although these are the primary companies leading the charge, there are over 80 individual companies with vaccine candidates in play. And with major billionaire donors and philanthropists like Bill Gates announcing hundreds of millions in continued funding, the charge for a vaccine will likely last until one is actually discovered.

Conclusion: When Will We Find a COVID-19 Vaccine?

Given the vast level of funding and global media attention, I believe it is indeed only a matter of time before a Coronavirus vaccine is discovered, commercialized, and brought to market. It will likely happen in late 2020 or early 2021.

Although much of the investments and many of the drug candidates will ultimately prove unsuccessful, the public only needs a few successful options. Such is the nature of pharmaceutical research; there may be a large pool of researchers, but very rarely do numerous projects make it through completion to see success.

However, in the years to come, I would expect a much greater focus on virology and research in infectious diseases by hedge funds, investment firms, philanthropists, and governments. Just as COVID-19 is not the first virus we’ve come across, it is surely not the last either. And while the human population is probably close to winning the battle against COVID-19, we are still far, far away from winning the war on infectious diseases.