AstraZeneca pursues mRNA, signs vaccine manufacturing deal with China's CanSino

Despite a Moderna partnership that turned sour, AstraZeneca still wants a piece of the mRNA game. 

The British pharma company has signed a new mRNA manufacturing deal with China’s CanSino Biologics, CanSino said in a securities filing (PDF) Tuesday.

The supply agreement will last at least 10 years. Under the deal, CanSino will use its mRNA manufacturing platform to support AZ on the R&D of certain vaccines, the filing shows. The pair may further collaborate on R&D and commercialization in the future.

No financial details were disclosed. It’s not clear what diseases AZ is planning to target with the mRNA tech, or whether the shots made by CanSino will be supplied to countries outside of China. 

The deal comes a year after AZ axed an mRNA partnership with Moderna on AZD8601. The mid-stage heart failure candidate sought to use mRNA encoding VEGF-A to repair and regenerate the heart. AZ also terminated an immuno-oncology project with Moderna, cutting MEDI1191, an mRNA drug for IL-12, from its pipeline. 

As of its latest earnings update two weeks ago, AZ had no clinical mRNA candidates. But the company’s website still lists mRNA as an area of interest under nucleotide-based therapeutics, a larger field that also includes a broad antisense collaboration with Ionis.

For its part, Moderna in July inked a memorandum of understanding and a land collaboration agreement with the Shanghai government to potentially study, develop and manufacture mRNA medicines in China. All products produced through that deal will be exclusively for China, according to Moderna. 

AZ is playing catch-up in the mRNA arena. The company essentially lost to Moderna and BioNTech in the COVID vaccine race. In the first half of 2023, AZ’s total COVID-related revenues came in at $334 million, including just $28 million from adenovirus-vectored COVID vaccine Vaxzevria, all recorded in the first quarter.

As for CanSino, the Chinese company jumped on the mRNA bandwagon in the early days of the pandemic. In May 2020, CanSino signed a deal with Precision NanoSystems to develop an mRNA lipid nanoparticle vaccine for COVID.

In January, the company reported early booster data for its mRNA candidate, coded CS-2034. A midstage trial showed the vaccine was better at inducing neutralizing antibodies than inactivated vaccines against both the original coronavirus strain and an omicron variant.

Meanwhile, CanSino is in the process of building an mRNA manufacturing facility in Shanghai with a target capacity of 100 million doses a year. In its annual report for 2022, CanSino touted the ability of its mRNA technology platform to “enable more rapid and cost-effective vaccine development.”

Like with other companies, CanSino’s revenues for its adenovirus vectored vaccine have slumped as the pandemic waned. In 2022, CanSino’s COVID shot brought in 878 million Chinese yuan ($122 million) sales, down 80% compared with 2021.

Now, CanSino is apparently turning to CDMO business to channel its surplus capacity.