Hoping to advance cheaper pneumonia vaccine, PnuVax picks up $29.4M Gates grant

The world already has a supersuccessful pneumococcal conjugate vaccine in Pfizer's Prevnar 13, but that isn't stopping PnuVax from pushing ahead with its own program. As it works toward its goal of eventually licensing a vaccine and providing low-cost doses to developing countries, the company will have a stack of money to lean on. 

Following two previous awards from the Gates Foundation, PnuVax reeled in another Gates grant on Monday worth $29.4 million to continue to develop its pneumonia vaccine. But it's early days for the technology, as PnuVax's vaccine has not entered human testing. In an email to FiercePharma, PnuVax cofounder Jonas Elliot Gerson said the company hopes to win licensure and start delivering vaccine doses in 2021.

The company said its patented conjugation tech lowers costs by speeding the manufacturing process and increasing yield. PnuVax plans to produce its vaccines in Montreal and ship them to developing countries through collaborations with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and Unicef. PnuVax previously won Gates Foundation awards in 2014 and 2015 to work on its pneumococcal vaccine candidate. 

The development comes as Pfizer suffers a slight sales slowdown for its key Prevnar 13, the world's bestselling shot. The franchise generated sales of $5.7 billion last year—down from $6.2 billion in 2015—but Pfizer has frequently come under pressure from international groups such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) for pricing its product too high in some countries. In response, Pfizer last year said it would donate some doses and offer a multidose vial intended to reduce logistical requirements and costs. 

The pharma giant further pledged to offer the “lowest prevailing global” cost of $3.05 per dose for humanitarian emergencies, but MSF has still pushed for lower prices across the board. In a statement, PnuVax leadership said they hope the company's work can help with access. 

“Children are still dying of preventable diseases such as pneumonia worldwide, largely due to high dosage costs and supply shortages that can thwart delivery to developing countries,” Gerson said in a statement.

According to PnuVax's website, CEO Donald Gerson has experience as president and COO of Celltrion and as managing director for manufacturing at Wyeth-Lederle Vaccines and Pediatrics. Prevnar is among the vaccine's he's helped produce, according to PnuVax. Pfizer acquired Wyeth in 2009. 

But in looking to challenge Pfizer's Prevnar 13, PnuVax won't be alone. Astellas and Affinivax recently joined together to work on a "next-gen" vaccine in the space.

Affinivax CEO Steve Brugger previously told FiercePharma a vaccine based on the company's Multiple Antigen Presenting System could protect against more strains than Prevnar 13 and elicit a stronger immune response. The vaccine hasn't entered the clinic. 

Under that deal, Astellas paid $10 million up front for development and commercial rights, with Affinivax eligible for undisclosed milestones along the way plus royalties on any future sales. 

Having raised $64 million in venture funding earlier this year, San Francisco's SutroVax is another company eyeing the blockbuster market.