Swelling ranks of COVID-19 vaccines in human testing, Inovio doses its first patients

Moderna and the National Institutes of Health beat all other players to human testing in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine. But the field is quickly growing.

Inovio is the latest company to move a candidate into human testing—INO-4800, a DNA vaccine developed in part through the company’s experience with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

That brings the number of vaccines now in the clinic to five, according to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI). And more are soon to come.

Aside from Moderna and Inovio, China’s CanSino Bio has one program in early human studies, and the Shenzhen Geno-Immune Medical Institute has two programs in phase 1, according to CEPI.

Both Moderna and Inovio scored early backing from CEPI as the novel coronavirus was spreading in Wuhan, China. At the time, there were about 26 deaths and 880 infections. Now, the outbreak has spread worldwide, causing about 1.5 million infections and about 90,000 deaths.  

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It’s not just CEPI supporting the biotech companies. The Gates Foundation has stepped in to back both projects, and the U.S. government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) has thrown support behind Moderna’s mRNA vaccine.

Moderna, partnered with NIH researchers, reached the clinic in 66 days after receiving the viral sequence, a world record. 

Including the vaccine candidates already in human testing, CEPI is tracking 78 active vaccine programs targeting the novel coronavirus. Johnson & Johnson is another major player; that company has pledged to scale up manufacturing and aims to enter the clinic by September.

Pfizer has partnered with BioNTech, and on Thursday, the companies said they could provide "millions" of doses yet this year if they're able to start human testing in April. Sanofi has two vaccine partnerships, one with the U.S. government and one with Translate Bio.

Novavax this week said it's expecting to enter the clinic in mid-May. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the Baylor College of Medicine have applied for FDA permission to start testing their own programs, the New York Times reports.

The more “shots on goal,” the better chances one will succeed, Jim Mayne, vice president of science and regulatory advocacy at PhRMA, said in a recent virtual panel hosted by FiercePharma.

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Even as the programs progress through the testing phase, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates recently said the world won’t be able to wait for traditional development and manufacturing timelines.

The Gates Foundation will pay billions to build factories for seven vaccines, even though they're expecting just two to succeed through to the end, he said. He acknowledged the plan would result in significant lost money, but that loss was worth it to speed up vaccine deployment.