The UK government has placed an order for 60 million doses of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine from Valneva for about $555 million. The deal includes an additional investment that CEO Thomas Lingelbach says will help double the footprint of Valneva’s manufacturing site in Livingston, Scotland, and allow it to produce 100 million to 150 million doses annually.
Valneva hasn’t released any data about its vaccine candidate, which is still being tested in animals. Clinical studies won’t begin until December. If those trials are successful, Valneva will fulfill the UK’s order in the second half of 2021.
Even though Valneva is running later than other firms in the COVID-19 vaccine race, it stands out for specializing in inactivated virus vaccines—a traditional technology that is otherwise conspicuously absent from the vaccine portfolios of US and European countries. The Chinese firms Sinovac and Sinopharm are already testing inactivated virus vaccines for COVID-19 in Phase III clinical trials.
Valneva makes its vaccine by growing the coronavirus in a biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) facility. It inactivates the virus with β-propiolactone, thus preventing its replication. Creating BSL-3 labs and manufacturing facilities is a time-consuming process. “It took 2 months before we could work with the virus in our labs,” Lingelbach says.
In contrast, many of the COVID-19 vaccine front-runners—including AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer—are developing gene-based vaccines that use RNA or adenoviral vectors to deliver a key coronavirus gene, rather than the virus itself, to our immune systems. These vaccines are rapidly designed and readily manufactured without the need for BSL-3 facilities.
Gene-based vaccines are still largely experimental, however. There are no approved RNA-based vaccines, and viral vector vaccines have only recently been approved for Ebola. Vaccines for hepatitis A, influenza, and polio are all made with inactivated viruses, and so is Valneva’s Japanese encephalitis vaccine.
The deal with Valneva gives the UK government an option to buy up to 130 million more doses of the vaccine through 2025. That could earn the firm more than $1 billion.