Novavax has signed a deal worth up to $1.6bn with the US government’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine programme, securing more federal funds than any other company behind a potential Covid-19 inoculation. The New York-listed company, which has yet to have any vaccines approved, plans to use the money to embark on a late-stage clinical trial and produce 100m doses of its vaccine candidate by January.
Novavax joins big pharmaceutical companies Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Merck and AstraZeneca in Operation Warp Speed, a US health department project touted by President Donald Trump, which aims to accelerate the development of a Covid-19 vaccine candidate. The biotech groups Moderna and Emergent BioSolutions are also part of the initiative. Alex Azar, US health secretary, said: “Adding Novavax’s candidate to Operation Warp Speed’s diverse portfolio of vaccines increases the odds that we will have a safe, effective vaccine as soon as the end of this year.” The Novavax agreement is the largest Operation Warp Speed deal announced so far, exceeding the size of a partnership with AstraZeneca worth up to $1.2bn.
Shares in Novavax had already risen more than 1,600 per cent so far this year before the agreement was announced on Tuesday, before the US stock market’s opening bell. Stanley Erck, chief executive of Novavax, said he believed the company was the only one creating a vaccine based on the whole of the Sars-Cov-2 spike protein, rather than just a part of it, which could make it more effective. Novavax also uses an adjuvant, an agent to boost immunity. He added that the vaccine could also be distributed using a standard cold supply chain. Some other vaccine candidates may require special equipment that could make it hard to deliver to people in developing countries.
Novavax has not yet published any data on how safe or effective its vaccine is in humans, with results of its earliest stage trial, conducted on 130 people in Australia, due out later this month. If successful, they will move towards a larger trial of up to 30,000 participants in the autumn. But Mr Erck said it worked well in animals and other vaccines made using the platform, including one for influenza, had “shown it is not a giant leap” between how animals and humans respond to their technique. “We have baboon data that looks really, really good and maybe better than anyone else,” he said. Novavax also received the largest grant given out by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations — $388m — which helped it fund the first trial and buy a factory in the Czech Republic that will be capable of making a billion doses of vaccine next year. Mr Erck said it was now looking for contract manufacturers in the US, Asia and Europe so that it could be prepared in case countries close their borders to stop vaccines being exported.