Inovio, the Plymouth Meeting-based biotechnology company, announced Tuesday that it has added Thermo Fisher Scientific to a consortium of manufacturers to help produce its in-development COVID-19 vaccine by 2021. Inovio’s is one of a number of vaccines that drugmakers around the world are racing to complete. But even before approval, the companies are getting manufacturing deals in place as demand for vaccines is so great.
Waltham, Mass.-based Thermo Fisher Scientific is the latest of three manufacturers that have signed on to make Inovio’s product, pending further testing and approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Company officials said in a news release that the goal is to produce 100 million doses of the vaccine in 2021.
Inovio’s candidate vaccine differs from others in development because it’s based on the coronavirus’ DNA blueprint rather than dead or weakened versions of the virus itself.
“We don’t use any real parts of the virus; we just use the genetic blueprint for a target of the virus that we want to alert our own immune system to attack,” said J. Joseph Kim, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “Instead of injecting the actual virus, the patient’s own cells manufacture the vaccine in their own bodies.”
It’s a relatively new technology pioneered by Kim and his cofounder, David B. Weiner. A DNA-based vaccine has never made it to market before.
Vaccines have become a politically fraught topic, with President Donald Trump hinting that a vaccine might be ready before the election, something that top scientists doubt. The two vaccines that are furthest along are made by Pfizer and Moderna, but experts worry that the public will lose confidence in a vaccine if there is any suggestion it was rushed for political purposes. The companies and regulators have insisted this would not happen.
Inovio began work on a COVID-19 vaccine in January, before it was clear that the coronavirus would trigger a worldwide, life-altering pandemic. The company had already been developing a vaccine against another coronavirus, MERS. It received funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a vaccine-development foundation, to work on a vaccine for the mysterious new virus that was then just beginning its global spread.
“We readily jumped on because of our experience with coronavirus vaccine development,” Kim said. “At the time, we didn’t have a clue whether this would be such a global pandemic. But we knew it had the potential to be a major global health crisis. We’ve been working day and night to advance our vaccine.”
In June, the company released results of an early vaccine trial, which it touted as promising: 34 of 36 study participants showed signs of an immune response to the vaccine. But the company released little data on that study, leaving investors and Wall Street analysts wary.
Kim said Tuesday that the company has submitted more detailed information on its studies of the vaccine for publication in “a top medical journal."
“We expect the data will be fully shared through publication,” he said.
Next up is FDA approval to conduct more studies — which, if the federal government permits them, will start this month.
“They’re designed to show the efficacy or effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing COVID-19 infection and disease, compared to placebo control groups," Kim said. “Typically, vaccine development can take up to 10 years or longer, and because of the global health needs, we and other [vaccine developers] have contracted this timeline to one to two years. We’re getting the vaccine doses ready, assuming that we will be successful in the clinical trial for 2021.”
Staff writer Marie McCullough contributed to this article.