Pfizer weighs working with German drugmaker BioNTech on potential coronavirus vaccine

Pfizer already collaborates with BioNTech on the development of mRNA-based vaccines for influenza. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Pfizer Inc is considering a collaboration with German drugmaker BioNTech SE to develop vaccines for the coronavirus using BioNTech's mRNA-based drug development platform, Pfizer's R&D head told Reuters on Thursday (March 5).

Pfizer Chief Scientific Officer Mikael Dolsten was one of the pharmaceutical executives who attended a meeting with US President Donald Trump to discuss possible vaccines and treatments for the fast-spreading virus on Monday.

He had said then that the company was working on developing an anti-viral therapy to help patients who already have contracted the virus. But he said on Thursday that Pfizer was considering joining companies like Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi SA and Moderna in the race to develop a vaccine to inoculate healthy patients.

Dolsten said that Pfizer, which already collaborates with BioNTech on the development of mRNA-based vaccines for influenza, is also interested in the company's efforts in coronavirus.

"We will share some of our thoughts with BioNTech also on what they do on Covid-19 and evaluate whether there are things that could merit to do together," he said.

BioNTech has been considering using its mRNA platform to develop a vaccine for coronavirus since earlier this year, BioNTech chief executive officer Ugur Sahin told Reuters in an interview last month.

An mRNA-based vaccine, which uses synthetic messenger RNA to help the body immunize itself against a virus, can potentially be developed and manufactured more quickly than traditional vaccines.

Moderna, which also focuses on mRNA-based therapies, has already developed an experimental coronavirus vaccine using a similar method to BioNTech. Moderna plans to begin clinical trials of its vaccine later this month.


Dolsten also gave more details about the company's efforts to develop potential anti-viral treatments for the virus, which are currently being screened by a third-party company to see how it performs against the virus in a laboratory setting.

Pfizer said these compounds could potentially be used in conjunction with another antiviral treatment being developed by Gilead Sciences called remdesivir, which is further along in the development process.

Pfizer's compounds use a different mechanism of action than Gilead's to attack the virus, Dolsten said, with Pfizer's looking to attack the protease segment of the virus.

The protease "is one of the best drug targets in the viral sector," Dolsten said.

"It has been one of the most effective for HIV and HCV and our analysis confirmed that the Covid-19 protease target was very similar to one we had been working on for another virus."

He declined to say what virus the compounds had been originally developed to fight.

Gilead's drug is focused on a target called the polymerase, Dolsten said. He said there were opportunities for Pfizer's compounds - if they are successful - to work in combination or sequentially with Gilead's.

"In other viral studies when you hit the two different mechanisms, you see a far better outcome, a much bigger cure rate than if you just work on a similar target," he said.

Gilead CEO Daniel O'Day said on Wednesday that remdesivir is in late stage clinical trials in both China and the United States. He said the company should know "in the next couple of months" whether the drug helps treat patients with the coronavirus.

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