Editors’ note: This article has been corrected to reflect Emergex is based in the United Kingdom.
Even if the Trump administration manages to buy out a German vaccine developer, it is unlikely to get an exclusive lock on inoculation against the COVID-19 virus, as several other companies are also in the race to develop a vaccine.
In the U.K., Emergex has diverted resources from its other projects, which include developing a dengue vaccine, to work on COVID-19.
The startup expects to have a vaccine ready for testing within two months, Dr. Lim Xinhong, director and analyst at Singapore-based venture capital (VC) firm Vickers Venture Partners told DealStreetAsia. Vickers Venture is an investor in Emergex.
Lim, who has a doctorate in Developmental Biology from Stanford University, explained that traditionally, vaccines used live, weakened versions of viruses. This can take years to develop, and needs to be grown on a host, usually eggs or mammalian cells, in a months-long process. That type of vaccine would then need a cold-chain for storage and transportation, he said.
Other current vaccine methods only stimulate the body to produce antibodies, but in some types of illnesses, such as dengue or SARS, that approach can actually worsen symptoms in patients, he said.
Using Emergex’s technology, small protein segments called peptides, which are essentially the viral code, are created and placed on gold nanoparticles as a carrier to deliver them to cells, he explained. Lim added that production can be scaled quickly because it is a chemical process. The approach aims to stimulate T-cells to act against the virus, he said.
And, rather than using a syringe, Emergex’s vaccines can be delivered using patches with microneedles, he said.
“The features of Emergex’s technology [are], because it’s fully synthetic, it’s much quicker to design, build and test. It’s much safer because it’s fully synthetic. So there’s no infection risk from live viruses. It’s much cheaper to produce since they don’t have to be grown in eggs. It’s stable at ambient temperature, so it’s easy to transport. There’s no cold chain that’s required,” Lim said.
“We can produce the vaccines at a fraction of the cost of today’s operating costs to produce the vaccines today. And we can still have enormous margins,” he added, noting that many large pharmaceutical companies have pulled back from the vaccine market due to poor unit economics.
Emergex is also working on a vaccine for the Flaviviridae virus family, which includes Zika, Japanese encephalitis and dengue, with preclinical evidence of effectiveness, Lim said. That vaccine was on schedule for clinical trials in humans in a few months, but may now be delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. Emergex is also working on a candidate for a universal flu vaccine and pandemic flu vaccine, Lim said.
Emergex has raised $12.3 million in financing from Vickers Venture Partners and Innovate UK, according to Crunchbase data.
Interest in a vaccine for COVID-19 is running as rampant as the virus has infected more than 168,000 people globally and resulted in more than 6,600 deaths, according to World Health Organisation figures as of March 16.
Over the weekend, German newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported the Trump administration was offering “large sums of money” to German biopharmaceutical player CureVac to relocate to the U.S. and use its coronavirus vaccine research to develop a vaccine exclusively “only for the United States.” The Washington Post cited an unnamed White House official as saying aides were unaware of any communication by Trump to CureVac, but that the US president often has private conversations his staff aren’t aware of.
The move apparently angered German politicians, and Reuters later reported German lawmakers were making counteroffers for CureVac to remain in the country, as well as invoking laws on reviewing takeover attempts by non-EU entities. For its part, CureVac reportedly said it remained committed to helping patients globally.
CureVac has already raised as much as $382 million across as many as seven funding rounds, with investors including LBBW Asset Management, Sigman Group, Northview Life Sciences, DH Capital, OH Beteiligungen, dievini Hopp Biotech Holding, Bailie Gifford, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Coppel Family, Chartwave and Baden-Wurttembergische Versorgungsanstalt fur Arzte, according to data from Crunchbase.
Meanwhile, other companies are even closer to getting a COVID-19 vaccine to market.
Biotech Moderna said on Monday it had begun a phase-one study of its messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine against COVID-19, conducted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The study, on humans, is mainly to evaluate the vaccine’s safety, with the 45 participants to be monitored for 12 months after a second vaccination is given.
Nasdaq-listed Moderna said the mRNA approach will mimic natural infections to stimulate an immune response.