Pfizer emerges from pandemic crucible with confidence to go solo in taking mRNA vaccines beyond Covid-19
The pandemic has changed Pfizer.
It’s not just the $15 billion in cash they expect their BioNTech-partnered Covid-19 vaccine to bring in 2021. Rather, the pharma giant is poised for a transformation from a major partner in mRNA technology to a major leader with its own development and manufacturing expertise, with plans to grow the R&D team in Pearl River, NY by at least 50.
“We are the best positioned company right now to take it to the next step because of our size and our expertise,” CEO Albert Bourla told the Wall Street Journal in a sit-down interview.
Within the past year, he noted, Pfizer’s scientists and engineers have gained a decade’s worth of experience from working with BioNTech, with whom they’ve been collaborating since 2018.
“We like working with BioNTech, but we don’t need to work with BioNTech,” he added. “We have our own expertise developed.”
Bourla, after all, sees the success of Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine — which he had decided to fund 100%, shunning any government support — as enormous validation for the shift he’s been spearheading at Pfizer, shedding the weight of legacy businesses to make room for a carefully pipeline-focused company. Just as he’s confident that Pfizer has edged out a lead for itself in the suddenly accelerated mRNA race alongside Moderna, he is intent on keeping it.
While the CEO didn’t go into details about his plans, the more advanced mRNA vaccine candidates lining up in Pfizer’s pipeline appear to still come from BioNTech. In particular, the company is set to take over the R&D, manufacturing and commercialization for an influenza jab this July as part of the 2018 deal with BioNTech, having already done part of the tech transfer.
Under that pact, Pfizer could also score two other experimental vaccines against cytomegalovirus and respiratory syncytial virus.
With a bespoke production network that now boasts of special equipment and raw materials required to make mRNA vaccines, Pfizer would be relying less on suppliers — both to make booster Covid-19 shots, which they are now testing in the clinic, and the new shots to come.
They would complement a slate of vaccines in the portfolio overseen by Kathrin Jansen that are made from more traditional technologies such as Prevnar 13, the top-selling pneumococcal shot that yielded $6 billion in sales last year; and 20vPnC, the follow-on vaccine that’s now under priority review at the FDA. Other mid- and late-stage vaccines are aimed at fighting RSV, meningococcal infections, invasive Group B streptococcus, C. difficile and Lyme disease.