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J&J launches vaccine efforts as coronavirus spreads

Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson is working to develop a vaccine for the emergent coronavirus identified last month in Wuhan, China, launching initial efforts to construct from the virus’ genetic sequence a candidate that could be tested in humans. “We have mobilized — internal and external — already dozens of scientists who are working on this,” Paul Stoffels, J&J’s chief scientific officer, said on CNBC Monday. “We are pretty confident that we can get something made which will work and which will stay active for the longer term.” J&J is the largest drugmaker to announce a vaccine development program for the virus, which has rapidly spread across China and to at least a dozen other countries. Importantly, J&J has the manufacturing capacity to produce a vaccine at scale, should its scientists hit upon a construct that appears effective.

Since the new coronavirus was detected in early January, at least half a dozen drugmakers have begun vaccine development efforts.

While companies like Moderna expressed hope a candidate could be identified quickly, past experience with viral outbreaks like SARS suggest readying a vaccine for testing could take months, if not years.

J&J expects the process will more closely resemble its response to the Zika virus, which took one year between initiation and beginning human trials, than to Ebola, which took six months.

In the case of Ebola, J&J and other drugmakers worked with the virus itself and drew on decades of experience with the highly infectious disease. For the Wuhan coronavirus, researchers are using the virus’ genetic sequence, which was shared by Chinese authorities soon after identification.

“We are going to take a parallel approach with at least five different constructs, with different partners, collaborators over the world in order to see which part of the virus we can use to make an effective vaccine,” J&J’s Stoffels said on CNBC.

Should one be identified, J&J could within one year produce hundreds of millions of vaccine doses using its 1,000-liter manufacturing platform, according to the executive — capacity that’s already been put to the test with the pharma’s investigational Ebola vaccine.

That kind of global production capability could make J&J a valuable contributor to vaccine development efforts, as smaller drugmakers also launching research programs — like Moderna, Novavax and Inovio — would be hard-pressed to produce at scale.

While J&J has experience in vaccines, Merck & Co, Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer are considered the four leading vaccine manufacturers.

GSK confirmed to BioPharma Dive that it has no active coronavirus programs, although it said it’s monitoring the situation closely. Sanofi, which is partnered with the Coalition for Innovations in Preparation for Epidemics, also said it’s following developments.

Merck has taken an initial step to form a team of scientists to “assess internal assets for potential antiviral activity toward the Wuhan coronavirus and related viruses,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Pfizer did not return a request for comment.

Much is still unknown about the Wuhan coronavirus, which has killed more than 80 people and sickened nearly 3,000. While between 75% and 80% of its genome overlaps with that of SARS’, the means of human-to-human transmission of the Wuhan virus, as well as its lethality, aren’t entirely clear.

Chinese authorities are currently experimenting with using HIV drugs made by AbbVie as possible treatments for the virus, according to Bloomberg, and J&J said it is also screening its library of antivirals for potential activity.