Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson were quickest off the mark in getting COVID vaccines into American arms, but Novavax is hoping to add another pandemic vaccine to the U.S. mix soon—and it's pushing new campaigns to get the word out.
The biopharma, which has approvals and authorizations in Europe and around the world, is now on the cusp of a potential green light in the U.S. And with a market comes the need for marketing.
But because it still has no U.S. approval—and it cannot under law advertise to consumers in Europe—Novavax is launching two new global, unbranded vaccine education programs: "We Do Vaccines" and "Know Our Vax." They're designed to offer up vaccine information and "explain Novavax’ commitment to vaccine development and innovation,” the company told Fierce Pharma Marketing.
The main message of the campaign is that “people have options when it comes to their vaccine,” Silvia Taylor, senior vice president of global corporate affairs at Novavax, said in an interview. “We want people to understand that we have this vaccine, and that this vaccine is different.”
Novavax knows it has some tough competition—Pfizer and Moderna's vaccines dominate the U.S. market—but the small biotech is eyeing certain market niches: The "vaccine hesitant" who might be leery of the brand-new mRNA tech in Pfizer and Moderna's shots, and children. And it does have a strong, vocal following online that's eagerly awaiting a U.S. decision.
Nuvaxovid taps older tech that's been used in influenza shots and others for decades. The vaccine contains a version of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein made in the lab as well as an adjuvant, which is a booster ingredient designed to strengthen immune responses to the vaccine.
A new option
Pfizer and Moderna's shots obviously weren't the only two vaccines in the U.S.: Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine alternative also uses older vaccine technology. But it fell out of favor amid weakening efficacy and major manufacturing issues. Then, late last year, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel recommended it should be sidelined because of serious safety concerns.
AstraZeneca's COVID vaccine—which itself uses more traditional vaccine technology—hasn’t been approved in the U.S.
Enter Novavax, now looking to position its vaccine as an mRNA alternative.
People hesitant about vaccinations may not want an mRNA vaccine because it's new technology, without years of proven safety behind it. But they might use an older, “tried and tested” tech, as Novavax puts it.
“There’s a recognition; a familiarity with this type of [protein-based] vaccine technology that many are comfortable with, and would have had with HPV, shingles and flu shots,” Taylor said.
“There is a segment of the population that are the so-called vaccine hesitant; they are the people we know are waiting for our vaccine. Never before have I seen a company and a product so closely followed, and that’s a big opportunity," Taylor said.
"There are people who want to know they can have a new option; they want to know who is making that option," she added. "So, these two education campaigns are set up to really help people understand that.”
She added that people are telling the company directly that access to Nuvaxovid “will convince them to get their vaccine. So that’s the first target audience for us.”
That group not only includes people getting their first shots but also those who may need boosters but put them off because of concerns about mRNA.
And the choice goes both ways: Not only does Novavax want consumers to have a choice, they want to arm doctors with a different shot for their vaccine arsenal.
Novavax is also targeting the pediatric population. There are questions about how well mRNA vaccines work in younger children. There are also safety concerns, notably the rates of myocarditis in young and adolescent boys, who appear to be more at risk from this condition, which can cause dangerous inflammation of the heart.
Taylor believes Nuvaxovid can be a safe and efficacious second choice for children and adolescents outside of mRNA. “When you are talking to caregivers, there are certain considerations that are going to be front and center for them: So, tolerability and efficacy and the big question, how will it be tolerated by my child? That becomes very important, and that’s also the market we are starting to make inroads in," Taylor said.
The education program route is one well-traveled by pharmas. In this case, it allows Novavax to talk up vaccines—and itself—without running afoul of rules against branded advertising. And awareness campaigns help prime the pump ahead of what could be branded DTC campaigns if and when the shot wins full FDA approval.
The "We Do Vaccines" program offers up educational information about common vaccine types and how they work, how vaccines are made and tested, and how Novavax believes its approach to technology makes its vaccines different.
It has an accompanying website that's a straightforward look at the different types of vaccine technologies and how they can help stop the spread of certain infectious diseases, from COVID to influenza. This particular campaign is aimed at consumers, Taylor said.
Novavax’s name is on the website, though not prominently, and it doesn’t directly talk about the COVID shot. But the site does link to a second site that dives much more deeply into the protein technology Novavax uses for the COVID vaccine, approved with the brand name Nuvaxovid in Europe. (The name hasn’t been confirmed in the U.S. yet.)
The "Know Our Vax" program, meanwhile, targets doctors and other healthcare professionals with educational information about Novavax, its global approach and technology. This campaign's website talks a little about Novavax itself and its history—and more about its vaccine tech and its pipeline, which includes work on other respiratory diseases.
Both sites invite visitors to sign up for “vaccine updates” from the company. Novavax said it used an agency to create the campaigns, though it did not name which one.
Pfizer and Moderna have both been relatively quiet on the marketing front. Neither want to talk to journalists about their marketing or education plans (at least this one). Marketing wasn't allowed while they were sold under emergency authorization, but now that they have full FDA approval, they can. Still, Pfizer has over the past four months been releasing a series of new DTC ads similar in tone to what Novavax is doing.
In its first series of ads, which first aired late last year, Pfizer doesn’t mention the words “COVID-19” or “vaccine,” but rather takes the viewer to “the pursuit of normal” and features the deliciously mundane aspects of everyday life that vaccines have allowed to return.
While nearing the finish line in the U.S., Novavax still has some way to go to actually cross it. First, the biopharma has been around 34 years now, but until last year, never saw a drug authorized or approved. As it nears a possible green light in its native U.S., that’s a lot of pressure for management to deliver.
And it’s struggled to get here: Manufacturing issues have hampered delivery of its vaccine, with the company reportedly struggling to meet quality standards. It has since said it has cleared up any remaining issues with the FDA in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Novavax is also preparing for a full BLA filing in the second half of the year; should it win that approval, it can really hit the gas on its DTC plans. Taylor said Novavax isn’t thinking too far ahead in terms of marketing after an approval, saying they “are solely focused on delivering these new campaigns and our vaccine around the world.”