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Johnson & Johnson tests 10 variants of coronavirus vaccine

Group eyes human trials in fall, utilizing Ebola and HIV knowledge

Johnson & Johnson's Dutch unit Janssen Vaccines & Prevention started development of a vaccine for the new coronavirus in January as soon as the genetic code became available.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Johnson & Johnson is leveraging its technologies used in the development of vaccines for Ebola, Zika, and HIV in a race to stop the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. 

The deadly outbreak has galvanized researchers across the globe, and countries and companies are rushing find treatments and develop a vaccine as the death toll rises. On Tuesday, the Chinese government said an influenza medicine, Avigan, developed by a group company of Japan's Fujifilm Holdings, is effective against the coronavirus.

Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo said Friday that the country is importing millions of doses of Avigan, while acknowledging that it has not been clinically proven to cure COVID-19.

The company is currently testing 10 candidates for the coronavirus on animals that could lead to clinical trials.

Johnson & Johnson's Dutch vaccine unit, Janssen Vaccines & Prevention, intends to utilize its proprietary technology that can greatly ramp up production, used in the development of the Ebola vaccine, which is currently deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, and for Zika, RSV and HIV vaccine candidates.

In a multi-pronged approach, the U.S. parent is also pursuing research to find effective treatments against COVID-19, which has claimed more than 11,000 lives. 

Hanneke Schuitemaker oversees Janssen Vaccines's viral vaccine programs. (Photo courtesy of Janssen Vaccines)

Hanneke Schuitemaker, Janssen's vice president in charge of vaccine discovery, spoke to Nikkei about the process. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Can you describe the joint research you are doing with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority in the U. S.?

A: We started in January as soon as the genetic code for the coronavirus was available. We have a system that we also applied for our candidate HIV vaccine and our Ebola vaccine.

By the end of March, we will have a large package of information, based on which we will select a lead candidate. Then, the whole process toward clinical trials will be able to start, at first with a human study in the autumn of this year.

We have 10 different variants now in small scale discovery work. We have those to see which one is eliciting the best immune response and is most compatible with manufacturing the vaccine.

In the end, we will select a lead candidate from these 10 that we will manufacture for clinical trials.

Q: When will the vaccine be available on the market?

A: Phase one (of trials) is now scheduled for autumn of this year. And, of course, it really depends on how the outbreak develops as to what the next steps will be. If we have a good phase one, and if the need for applying a vaccine under emergency circumstances is quite high... then we'll have a rollout of emergency use of the vaccine.

Q: What is the estimated manufacturing capacity of this vaccine at full production?

A: That of course depends on the dose that we may need to use, but our rough estimate based on available manufacturing capacity is that we could produce 300 million doses per year, and we are already looking at scenarios to ramp up manufacturing capacity.

It's a huge shopping list. Not only do we need a manufacturing plan, but also raw materials. We really need to start ordering them now to be able to produce on time.

Q: Why is it so difficult to prep for this kind of outbreak as an industry?

A: It is difficult because we never know what the next outbreak will be. This one also caught us by surprise. Drawing upon our response to Ebola five or six years ago, we learned a lot from how we can move fast and do things in parallel.

We are a vaccine company, but we do not necessarily have immediate expertise on all the viruses that pop up.

The good thing is that in academia there are fantastic scientists who have spent their entire careers on coronaviruses and are very keen to collaborate with us. And, that's what you now see happening even more than what happened after the Ebola outbreak -- people are really realizing that we should collaborate. That we should form these public-private partnerships.

And that's also where governments come in, and not only with funding or co-funding, but through government support and the collaboration. We have great access to knowledge, and, also in our own network, we see that these collaborations almost happen naturally.

Q: What was it about Ebola that elicited an unprecedented collaboration effort across industries and national borders?

A: I think the fatality rate with Ebola was really what triggered the strong response. And that, for the first time, the quarantine that was normally applied did not work because it happened in an urban area.

The other thing that helped at the time was that Ebola was recognized as a potential bioterrorism weapon. This was one of the reasons funding was made available to develop a vaccine.

Q: Do you believe the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), an international foundation, is performing a significant role in the coronavirus epidemic?

A: Yes. They have really worked hard to be in outbreak-response mode, and they are really following up fairly quickly. Their decision-making process is very rapid, so I think they are really facilitating and channeling the funding and the knowledge and the collaborations. That's why they exist. And I think they are doing a pretty good job this time.

Q: Could you explain why we have not yet developed a vaccine for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)?

A: I think it's a story similar story to Zika.People started at the time to work on it, but then it disappeared. And the same applies to MERS [Middle East respiratory syndrome].

The CEPI coalition has signaled MERS could come back. They are working on a vaccine that can then be stockpiled or put on the shelf to be able to rapidly respond to reemergence of the virus.

Those two disappeared by themselves and were self-limiting outbreaks.

Q: How difficult is it as a private corporation to make investment decisions on vaccines that may not turn a profit?

A: We have a very balanced portfolio of vaccine candidates that we decide to work on because of the high. And of course whether it would create the required revenues to justify the investment. That's the normal process.

But as was once the case with Ebola, now the corona vaccine, and also in part our HIV vaccine -- it's also largely driven by corporate social responsibility. And that responsibility dictates us to make our [expertise] available for these sudden and serious unmet needs.

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