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BioNTech joins coronavirus vaccine race

The German firm will work with Fosun Pharma and Pfizer to develop an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19

by Ryan Cross
March 18, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 11


A photo of a BioNTech production facility.
Credit: BioNTech SE
A BioNTech production facility

BioNTech is the latest company to announce plans to develop a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. The German firm expects clinical trials of its vaccine to begin in late April.

Two other firms, Moderna and CureVac, previously announced work on mRNA vaccines for COVID-19. The vaccines contain instructions that enable the human body to make proteins from the coronavirus. In theory, the immune system should learn to target and neutralize those proteins, providing immunity if the person becomes infected with the real virus.

Shanghai-based Fosun Pharma signed a deal with BioNTech to test the vaccine in China. Fosun also agreed to invest $50 million in BioNTech, which could earn up to $85 million in additional payments. In return, Fosun gets the rights to commercialize the vaccine in China.

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BioNTech is working with Pfizer to develop and commercialize the COVID-19 vaccine in the rest of the world. On March 17, BioNTech said the financial terms of that agreement were still being worked out. In 2018, BioNTech struck a deal with Pfizer worth up to $425 million to develop an mRNA vaccine for influenza. BioNTech got $50 million up front and a $50 million investment from Pfizer, according to Pfizer’s 2019 annual report.

Although BioNTech is best known for its mRNA programs, the firm primarily describes itself as a cancer immunotherapy company. It is also developing antibodies, small molecules, and cell therapies for cancer.

Moderna, which focuses exclusively on mRNA, is the front-runner in the COVID-19 vaccine race. The US National Institutes of Health began testing the safety of Moderna’s vaccine in healthy people in Seattle on March 16, just 9 weeks after the firm began working on it. CureVac, a German company focused on mRNA, expects to start clinical trials of its mRNA vaccine in June.

BioNTech plans to produce the mRNA for the clinical trials at its facilities in Europe. It will also work with the Austrian contract manufacturer Polymun Scientific to package the mRNA molecules into fatty sacs called liposomes, which should make the vaccine suitable for injection into the body.

In a statement, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin says his company is also developing a drug for people who are already infected with the coronavirus and that details are forthcoming.



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