Johnson & Johnson announced in March that it would invest more than $ 1 billion to develop a COVID-19 vaccine candidate. That amount is higher than the market caps earlier this year of some drugmakers who set out to develop new coronavirus vaccines. But could giant Johnson & Johnson really be an outsider in the COVID-19 vaccine race?
Back to the pack
Johnson & Johnson originally planned to begin Phase 1 / 2a clinical studies for its COVID-19 vaccine candidate Ad26.COV2-S in September. However, the company announced in June that it would be able to speed up the schedule and begin the preliminary study at the end of July instead.
It was great news. And this is the result of solid preclinical data as well as extensive discussions with regulatory agencies. So where has this put J&J in the race to begin clinical trials for a coronavirus vaccine candidate? Certainly not in the first place, but maybe second or third? Fourth, maybe? Nope.
Assuming that no other drugmaker begins clinical trials before J&J, the large healthcare company will be the 25th drugmaker to launch human clinical trials of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate. That’s right, 24 other vaccine candidates are ahead of J & J’s Ad26.COV2-S.
Some of the leaders ahead of J&J are large pharmaceutical companies that quickly established partnerships to develop COVID-19 vaccines, including AstraZeneca and Pfizer. Others are smaller biotechnologies such as Modern and Novavax. All of them have surpassed the world’s largest healthcare company to go into clinical testing earlier.
Benefits of being tall and famous
This relatively slow start, however, did not prevent Johnson & Johnson from staying in the spotlight. When President Trump invited seven drugmakers to the White House to discuss the threat posed by COVID-19 in March, J&J was at the table.
In June, reports revealed that Operation Warp Speed, the federal initiative set up to accelerate development of the COVID-19 vaccine, had selected five experimental coronavirus vaccines for support. Once again, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine candidate made the cut. J&J was chosen by Operation Warp Speed, while some small companies that already had candidates in clinical trials were left out.
It’s not too surprising that J&J was favored by the White House. As already mentioned, the company is the largest in the industry. The Johnson & Johnson brand and products are household names. There are advantages to being tall and famous.
Johnson & Johnson could make up for lost ground fairly quickly. Scientific director Paul Stoffels said on the company’s teleconference in the second quarter of this month that talks are already underway with the National Institute of Health to launch a Phase 3 study ahead of the initial schedule. He added that this advanced stage study could start at the end of September. That would put J&J just two months behind Moderna.
The company also has sufficient resources to grow rapidly. J&J is aggressively expanding its manufacturing capacity with the goal of delivering more than one billion doses of its COVID-19 vaccine by the end of next year.
It may not be as lucrative as it sounds. J&J has pledged to sell its COVID-19 vaccine at cost during the global pandemic if it gets approval. The large healthcare stockpile probably wouldn’t jump as big as others if it got approval for its COVID-19 vaccines.
Additionally, many people probably don’t realize how much of a relative newbie Johnson & Johnson is to the world of vaccine development. While the company has researched vaccines for years, it won its first major regulatory approval for a vaccine just weeks ago with the European Commission approval for its Ebola vaccine.
It might be difficult to see Johnson & Johnson as a true outsider in the race to develop COVID-19 vaccines. However, it is also difficult to see the company as a leader in the race.