Q&A: Determined to not repeat mistakes from the last pandemic, Andrey Zarur talks about latest deal with Serum Institute
The Massachusetts biotech GreenLight made waves Monday with the announcement of its licensing deal with the Serum Institute of India. Three of its mRNA products, starting with its shingles vaccine, will be produced by Serum in a deal that piggybacks off of its $10 million investment from November.
GreenLight is riding high off of its reverse merger that netted itself a $1.5 billion valuation, after it merged with the SPAC Environmental Impact Acquisition Corp. It’s still working on experimental vaccines and therapies using mRNA technology for the seasonal flu and sickle cell disease, a long way from where it originally got its start: shaking up the pesticides market for agriculture.
Andrey Zarur, the founder and CEO of GreenLight, took some time to sit down and talk with me about the deal with Serum on Tuesday. Here’s our conversation.
Congratulations on this deal. What does the partnership mean for GreenLight?
We’re super excited, right? I mean, Serum is not only the largest vaccine manufacture in the world, by the number of doses sold, but they also have an incredible footprint and reach across the lower- and middle-income countries, which are a fundamental piece of preventing pandemics. If we’ve learned anything about Covid it’s that if we just ignore the rest of the world and do what we always do, here in the US and Europe, we’re going to get screwed time and again. We are one human race, and we need to treat it as such. The only way to get out of this is to have a coordinated global vaccine strategy, which Serum is going to help us with …Their ability to distribute global is I think what is missing from this equation.
Talk to me about the treatments and vaccines to be named later. Are those something you’ve had conversations about that you’re waiting to announce publicly?
We haven’t made a decision yet … We have a close relationship, and they’re very aligned with our mission. And a little of it is where are the needs that are prevalent that are not being addressed, and another one is where are these diseases going.
Can you talk to me about how you’ve identified the shingles vaccine as a key area of focus?
The shingles virus is the same virus as (the chicken pox). In the US, we vaccinate kids against the chicken pox. And so the chances that they grow up to be adults and get shingles is relatively low. But the rest of the world, that’s not the case. The rest of the world, you get chicken pox when you’re a kid, pretty much everybody continues to get chicken pox as they get older. It can be dangerous and it is extraordinary painful. It’s a huge unmet need, there are billions of people who are at risk of shingles who don’t have a solution, and of course there is no established business model. So we’re focused on a major need that’s likely to affect everybody over the age of 60.
I had shingles when I was a freshman in high school, which I know is a weird time to get it, but I can vouch for how painful it can be.
I had it in my thirties, and you can still see the big scar it left. But it never really goes away.
It’s been such a crazy journey for you all, can you walk me through the last year or so on your end?
It hasn’t really been crazy. It was a long and very, very challenging journey by design.
We set out in 2008 to come up with a new way of producing biological energy, which the vast majority of the top biology programs in all the top research institutions had tried and failed. So we knew that we were embarking on a near-impossible journey … This is really hard. We’re trying to rewire nature, so we knew it was going to be incredibly difficult when we started. It took 7 or 8 years to figure out a system that would enable us to control biology.
Once we got there five or six years ago, we started with agriculture because we believed we needed to make a dramatic impact in the way the world grows their own food. It is, I believe, the biggest threat to life on the planet, more so than global warming. Because while global warming is really really serious, at the end of the day, with enough money and enough scientists, you can mitigate those effects, and the world is already making a transition to clean energy. You look at our fields, and we haven’t done anything for the last 50 years. In fact, everything we’ve done has made the agricultural system less sustainable.