"Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2" by Felipeesquivel20 / CC BY-SA 4.0

The $1 billion bet: Pharma giant and U.S. government team up in all-out coronavirus vaccine push

Mar 31, 2020

By Jon Cohen

The crowded race to develop a vaccine against the new coronavirus just received a potential billion-dollar boost: Johnson & Johnson (J&J) announced on 30 March that it and the U.S. government, through a military research agency, would together devote up to that amount to move a candidate product made by its Janssen division across the finish line.

Janssen’s vaccine is built around an engineered version of adenovirus 26 (Ad26), which normally causes common colds but has been disabled so that it cannot replicate. Company scientists stich into this Ad26 “vector” a gene for the surface protein from the new coronavirus spreading around the world. Janssen is testing this same Ad26 platform in vaccines against Ebola, HIV, respiratory syncytial virus, and Zika. J&J had $42 billion in pharmaceutical sales last year, making it the sixth largest big pharma company. Sanofi is the only other in the top 10 that has a COVID-19 vaccine project.

Florian Krammer, a researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who has co-authored a status report in Immunity about the COVID-19 vaccine field, says “it’s great” that a big pharma company like this has committed so much to the project, but he cautions against banking on any one effort. “The more the merrier—and I hope they’re successful—but the question is really whether they have an advantage over anyone else,” Krammer says.

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