Pfizer, after success in COVID-19, will go solo to develop other mRNA vaccines, CEO Bourla says

Albert Bourla incoming Pfizer CEO
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, Ph.D., sees a big opportunity for his company, developing more vaccines using the same mRNA technology that proved successful in Pfizer-BioNTech's quick turnaround of a coronavirus vaccine. (Fierce Pharma)

On the heels of its rapid development of a COVID-19 vaccine, Pfizer will attempt to use the same gene-based technology to advance other vaccines against a host of diseases, CEO Albert Bourla, Ph.D., told The Wall Street Journal.

Pfizer’s historic achievement—creating a vaccine in 11 months—wasn’t a solo accomplishment as the company partnered with German drugmaker BioNTech for its coronavirus effort. But now Pfizer is ready to pursue messenger RNA technology on its own, Bourla said.

“There is a technology that has proven dramatic impact and dramatic potential,” Bourla said. “We are the best-positioned company right now to take it to the next step because of our size and expertise.”

Pfizer won’t be alone in the pursuit. Moderna, which developed its own mRNA COVID-19 vaccine in roughly the same time span, also is exploring how the technology can be applied in attacking other viruses and pathogens. A host of other biotech and pharma companies are also involved in mRNA research.

During the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in January, Moderna told investors that it had nine vaccines in various stages of development. It also is using mRNA technology to develop therapeutics in four general areas, including five immuno-oncology treatments, four for rare diseases and two each for cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases. 

RELATED: Vaccine experts are excited about mRNA's success in COVID, but it's not time to 'walk away' from traditional shots: panel

While Moderna may not be able to match the size of Pfizer, it does have an edge in experience as it's been working in the field for the last decade. Bourla hopes to close that gap by hiring at least 50 scientists dedicated to mRNA research, he told the Journal.

Last summer, Pfizer’s chief scientific officer Mikael Dolsten touched on the company's effort during an earnings call, saying that mRNA technology will be a valuable tool in vaccine research moving forward.

“This platform will be possible to also disrupt the flu market, novel vaccines against CMV and even go into the novel age group of RSV,” Dolsten said at the time. “So we see a very large opportunity based on the leadership that we have with this mRNA platform.”

The benefits of mRNA technology have long excited researchers, but it wasn't until the COVID-19 pandemic that mRNA's promise was broadly realized. Looking forward, it'll likely attract much more attention from biopharma companies large and small. Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson, for instance, has said mRNA will be the "go-to" tech for single-antigen pandemics moving forward.

RELATED: Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine data 'open the floodgates' for mRNA in infectious disease. Other areas? Not so fast: analysts

The “beauty” of the platform is that the production process is “universal," Mariola Fotin-Mieczek, the chief technology officer at CureVac, said on a Fierce Pharma webinar last year. CureVac is developing an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine candidate of its own.

“If you invest in huge production capacity, you can produce different vaccines in the same plant,” Fotin-Mieczek said, without needing to “start from scratch” or switch production processes.

Back in November, even before the Pfizer COVID vaccine scored emergency use authorization, SVB Leerink analyst Daina Graybosch predicted the success of the COVID vaccine would “open the floodgates” to mRNA technology in other infectious diseases. Bourla’s words this week add more fuel to that belief.