WASHINGTON — As nations around the world race to lock up coronavirus vaccines even before they are ready, the Trump administration on Wednesday made one of largest investments yet, announcing a nearly $2 billion contract with Pfizer and a German biotechnology company for 100 million doses by December.
The contract is part of what the White House calls the Warp Speed project, an effort to drastically shorten the time it would take to manufacture and distribute a working vaccine. So far, the United States has put money into more than a half dozen efforts, hoping to build manufacturing ability for an eventual breakthrough.
Europe has a parallel effort underway. Germany recently took a 23 percent stake in a German firm, CureVac, that President Trump once tried to lure to American shores in hopes that its vaccine, if successful, would be distributed in the United States first. A European-led fund-raising effort in May brought $8 billion in pledges from the world’s governments, philanthropists and leaders for coronavirus vaccine research, even with the United States sitting out the conference.
China, meantime, has militarized the effort: Researchers associated with the Academy of Military Medical Sciences have developed one of China’s leading vaccine candidates, and another Chinese firm, Sinopharm Group, announced in June that it was beginning Phase 3 trials in the United Arab Emirates.
The Pfizer contract, an agreement to ensure the pharmaceutical giant has a market for its work, is the biggest splash yet by the Americans. No vaccine has yet been developed, and it’s not clear whether the Pfizer version will work. But if the vaccine being produced by Pfizer and BioNTech, the German firm, proves to be safe and effective in clinical trials, the companies say they could manufacture those first 100 million doses by the end of the year.
Under the arrangement, the federal government would obtain that first batch for $1.95 billion, or about $20 a dose, with the rights to acquire up to 500 million more, or 600 million total. Americans would receive the vaccine for free. Before it could be distributed, it would need emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration. But the U.S. government does not pay the nearly $2 billion until the drug is approved and the first 100 million doses are delivered.
Pfizer said that large-scale safety and efficacy trials were to begin this month, with regulatory review set for as early as October, although nothing was guaranteed.
“Depending on success in clinical trials, today’s agreement will enable the delivery of approximately 100 million doses of vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech,” Alex M. Azar II, the health secretary, said in a statement announcing the deal.
On Monday, Pfizer and AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish drug company developing a potential vaccine with Oxford University, released data suggesting that their vaccines could stimulate strong immune responses with only minor side effects.
But unlike AstraZeneca, which has also obtained funding from the U.S. government, Pfizer did not receive a contract for its earlier research and development efforts — only for the doses and their distribution.
By refusing funding up until now, Pfizer was able to avoid drawn-out contractual negotiations and get its vaccine to trials, company officials say.
“We didn’t accept the federal government funding solely for the reason that we wanted to be able to move as quickly as possible with our vaccine candidate into the clinic,” John Young, Pfizer’s chief business officer, said on Tuesday at a congressional hearing with executives from five vaccine manufacturers.
Pfizer and BioNTech are developing a vaccine candidate that uses genetic material from the virus, known as messenger RNA, to stimulate the immune system without making the recipient sick. The technology can create a vaccine quickly, but has not yet produced one that has been approved and marketed.
Moderna, a Massachusetts biotech company, received $483 million from the U.S. government for its vaccine development and is also using mRNA technology. By putting the might of an industry giant behind it, Pfizer is making the technology mainstream.
The lack of a track record has prompted some skepticism about this approach, but Dr. Kathrin Jansen, a senior vice president and the head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer, dismissed the criticism.
“That’s not a scientific mind-set — that just because it’s new, it will fail,” she said in an interview.
Earlier in her career, Dr. Jansen worked for Merck, where she led its development of a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, which is caused by a virus. The vaccine, Gardasil, has been successful. It, too, used a technology that was new at the time and faced considerable skepticism.
Dr. Jansen said Pfizer had placed its bet on messenger RNA not just because the technology could produce a vaccine quickly, but also because its review of previous work by BioNTech on experimental cancer vaccines suggested the approach could cause a powerful immune response. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the two companies had been collaborating on flu vaccines.
Vaccines using mRNA consist of genetic material from part of the virus, encased in tiny particles made of fat that help it get into human cells. The messenger RNA then prompts the cells to churn out a tiny piece of the virus, causing the immune system to attack the real virus if the person is exposed. In essence, the patient’s cells become factories for a harmless fragment of the virus.
These vaccines set off several different kinds of immune responses, Dr. Jansen said, which is important because scientists do not know yet which type will be most potent against the coronavirus.
Dr. Jansen described making such a vaccine as a clean, fast process that required a relatively small footprint to produce many doses.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Updated July 22, 2020
Why do masks work?
- The coronavirus clings to wetness and enters and exits the body through any wet tissue (your mouth, your eyes, the inside of your nose). That’s why people are wearing masks and eyeshields: they’re like an umbrella for your body: They keep your droplets in and other people’s droplets out. But masks only work if you are wearing them properly. The mask should cover your face from the bridge of your nose to under your chin, and should stretch almost to your ears. Be sure there are no gaps — that sort of defeats the purpose, no?
Is the coronavirus airborne?
- The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
What’s the best material for a mask?
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
- So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
She added that it “has the potential to be fast to produce a product that is very well defined and very pure.”
Several other companies are also making such vaccines, and each has its own formulation of the genetic material and types of fat used to encase it.
The large vaccine studies set to begin this month will each include 30,000 people, with some getting placebo shots. The Food and Drug Administration has said that to be considered effective, a coronavirus vaccine should protect 50 percent of the people who receive it.
Companies hope to show proof of effectiveness by the fall, but that will depend on enrolling enough volunteers in areas where the infection rate is high enough to see a significant difference between the vaccinated people and the placebo group.
“We think we will see the end points, given that the infection rates are going up, up, up,” Dr. Jansen said. “If the stars are aligned, it could be next fall. But everything has to be right.”
Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said that Pfizer, unlike some smaller pharmaceutical companies that the government had contracted with, did not need research money because it was likely to have the infrastructure and early data it needed to speed its vaccine to trials without federal assistance.
“Pfizer is a company that has a lot of expertise in making vaccines,” he said. “They knew that any negotiation with the government could have delayed the start” of trials, which he said the company knew how to set up rapidly.
He added that the $1.95 billion agreement was a way to guarantee a market for the vaccine at the end of production, since prominent drugmakers have historically been hesitant to spend on infectious disease outbreaks.
“Advance purchase agreements have been one way we’ve been able to acquire vaccines and countermeasures against certain threats that pharmaceutical companies have traditionally stayed away from,” he said.
The agreement with Pfizer, which the company and the Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday morning, is the largest one yet for Operation Warp Speed. The federal government announced this month that it would pay the Maryland-based company Novavax $1.6 billion to expedite the development of a coronavirus vaccine.
“We’ve been committed to making the impossible possible by working tirelessly to develop and produce in record time a safe and effective vaccine to help bring an end to this global health crisis,” Dr. Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chairman and chief executive officer, said in a news release.