Johnson & Johnson, BARDA join forces to prep for pandemic flu, inking deal for vaccine and drug R&D

After seeing recent deadly outbreaks catch medical communities off guard, vaccine experts may be happy to see a new collaboration between Johnson & Johnson and a U.S. development agency take shape. In a novel agreement, the groups have paired up for pandemic flu preparedness, focusing on a vaccine program and other flu drug candidates from J&J.

BARDA, a unit of the Department of Health and Human Services, will pony up $43 million in the first year and up to $273 million over 5 years to support Janssen's flu ambitions. Janssen will match the investment along the way as it seeks to develop its first flu vaccine and advance other drugs.

Among projects the group hopes to advance are a "universal" flu vaccine intended to protect against all or most flu strains. Aside from that project, the team will work on an anti-flu small molecule drug. The portfolio also includes monoclonal antibodies, and the partners could add or remove candidates as they see fit. 

Recent outbreaks including Ebola, Zika and MERS have highlighted a vaccine development system that overlooks future threats in favor of commercial projects. Experts have lamented the reactive approach as those outbreaks sparked calls for more interaction between government, industry and academia. 

Now, those emergencies may be spawning more collaboration. In one such deal, Baylor and Merck KGaA's MilliporeSigma teamed up last month to work on vaccines against neglected diseases, starting with schistosomiasis. Earlier this year, top pharmas, the Gates Foundation and multiple governments joined together to form the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness, or CEPI, which will work on vaccines against the MERS-CoV, Lassa and Nipah viruses to start. 

“Speeding the development of bio-preparedness countermeasures such as new therapies and vaccines requires that the private and public sectors join forces," J&J's chief scientific officer Paul Stoffels said in a statement on Friday. "No single government or company can do it alone." 

Pandemic flu is "one of the greatest health threats that we face," added BARDA director Rick Bright, who said J&J's portfolio "includes exciting products that could greatly improve our response."

While its collaboration with J&J is the "first of its kind" for pandemic flu preparedness, according to BARDA, the group has partnered with a who's who of Big Pharma in order to support R&D work against a variety of diseases. In one recent deal that didn't pan out, the agency teamed up with Sanofi and the U.S. Army to work on a promising Zika vaccine candidate. Critics called on the team to ensure fair pricing if a marketed vaccine were to successfully emerge from the collaboration.

But as Zika's spread slowed, government officials decided to "de-scope" the collaboration and call off most of the work. The Sanofi partnership sparked a public debate over taxpayer-funded medical research and pricing that eventually spread to other products. BARDA still has a Zika vaccine partnership with Takeda that could end up being worth more than $300 million. 

For its pandemic flu vaccine preparedness efforts, BARDA has also worked with top vaccine players Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline and Seqirus. Seqirus formed after Novartis sold its flu vaccine business to Australia's CSL.