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Vaccine Development Is Risky Business. Biotechs Are Tackling The Coronavirus, Anyway

Neal Browning receives a shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
Neal Browning receives a shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

For biotechnology companies, responding to a sudden public health crisis, like the coronavirus, can be risky business. It can take more than a year to develop a vaccine or treatment. By that time, the threat may be gone, leaving little or no demand for a drug.

The current coronavirus pandemic appears to be different.

The race to beat the pathogen is on, with many biotechs now expecting a large market for coronavirus therapies in 2021 or beyond. But the starting gun didn’t fire right away when the virus began spreading late last year.

“There were a lot of companies that kind of felt once bitten, twice shy,” said Jose Travejo, chief executive of SmartPharm Therapeutics in Kendall Square.

Companies were shy because drug makers have been bitten in the past when they’ve hustled to confront an outbreak, only to see the danger subside and their efforts go to waste. That’s what happened during a previous coronavirus scare — the SARS outbreak of 2003, which ended before any vaccine maker could earn a buck.

“There was also Ebola, and then a lot of people forget about the swine flu — the H1N1,” Travejo said. “So, I think a lot of big pharma were a bit hesitant to plunge fully into coronavirus.”

In recent weeks, the industry’s view has changed. At LabCentral, the shared workspace where Travejo’s gene therapy startup operates, more than a dozen companies have turned their attention to the coronavirus, including SmartPharm.

And that’s just one lab in Cambridge.

The number of companies pursuing coronavirus drugs is constantly growing, according to Yasmeen Rahimi, co-head of biotechnology research at Roth Capital Partners, an investment banking firm in Newport Beach, Calif.

“I track COVID-19 on a daily basis,” she said. “Almost every day we get 10 or 12 companies that are coming.”

Rahimi said the most notable may be Moderna, another Cambridge biotech. It’s the first company to begin testing a potential coronavirus vaccine on humans in the U.S.

Moderna didn’t respond to an interview request. But in a public document this week, the company said that “a commercially-available vaccine is not likely to be available for at least 12-18 months.”

Moderna doesn’t think the virus will peter out by then. Instead, it is “scaling up manufacturing capacity toward the production of millions of doses per month.”

That may not be enough, according to Dr. Lee Wetzler, an infectious disease specialist at Boston Medical Center.

“Just like the flu vaccine, you’re talking not just millions of doses,” said Wetzler, who is also a professor at Boston University School of Medicine. “Tens — tens of millions of doses and even more.”

Then again, Wetzler added, it’s hard to predict what this previously unknown virus will look like a year from now. It’s possible that the pandemic will be under control, which would be good for the world but maybe not so good for companies, like Moderna and others, investing in drugs to stop it.

There’s a cautionary tale in the once-hot biotech Vical, which received federal money to chase vaccines for anthrax, SARS and Ebola. The fear and the funding always faded before Vical could cross the finish line, said John Carroll, editor of Endpoints News, a biotech publication.

“What Vical did was just flame out,” he said. “They weren’t able to come up with a vaccine and, after repeated failures, they just couldn’t make it anymore.”

The risk of failure is well understood by James Sietstra, chief business officer of Totient, one of the startups at LabCentral that have shifted to the coronavirus. But he maintains that working on the coronavirus won’t be futile, even if the disease runs its course before Totient can bring a drug to market.

“As a business case for us, this is a great proof point for the power of our platform,” he said.

Sietstra said the same method Totient will use to attack the coronavirus could also be used against other diseases — including the company’s original target, cancer.

This article was originally published on

Copyright 2021 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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