Dr. Paul Stoffels told Forbes J&J doesn’t plan to profit from its coronavirus vaccine and has even … [+] started production before it knows if it works. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images)
On Monday, Forbes revealed Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutical was handed $450 million to work on a preventative treatment for COVID-19. Later, the pharma giant confirmed the coronavirus vaccine could roll out to the public by early 2021.
Now the company’s chief scientist says it will also spend $500 million as part of a $1 billion partnership with the U.S. government to research and produce a vaccine. And Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer at Johnson & Johnson, says it will start manufacturing this month before the vaccine has gone through clinical trials or been approved by the FDA. That’s in order to get large quantities of the vaccine ready to go to market early next year, if it’s given the green light by regulatory agencies, Stoffels tells Forbes.
“It’s absolutely not standard. Normally you know first that it works and then you start the manufacturing, or at least you have some good idea,” Stoffels notes. “Here, the crisis is so big that we have to organize ourselves differently and get going… This is a very high risk program because we do everything in parallel, but this crisis is so bad that we don’t have another choice. You have to do this.”
And he tells Forbes the company doesn’t expect to turn a profit from any COVID-19 vaccine.
“We have from the beginning decided we are going to do this not for profit so that the vaccine becomes affordable and available on a global scale as quickly as possible,” says Stoffels. Stoffels says Johnson and Johnson has to collaborate rather than compete in order to tackle COVID-19, though it hasn’t yet disclosed any partnerships other than its work with the federal government and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center on vaccine research. “That’s the best way to go extremely fast, make it available on a large scale and make sure we get this thing under control…It’s not about competition. There have to be more trains on the rails to success here than just one vaccine.”
Two vaccine trials are already under way in the U.S. and China, including one led by Massachusetts-based Moderna, whilst a number of others are due to start imminently. “We could still fail. Moderna could fail… And then there are 10 billion people in the world who maybe need a vaccine. So there’s going to be space enough for vaccines.”
The news of progression on a coronavirus vaccine boosted Johnson & Johnson stock by 7.5% on Monday, up to $132.46 per share on the New York Stock Exchange.
How Johnson & Johnson vaccine works
Stoffels also explained the way in which the Johnson & Johnson vaccine candidate works. First, they take a piece of the coronavirus DNA (specifically, one that codes for the “spike” protein that latches on to human cells) and place it inside a dead adenovirus. Adenoviruses are the ones that cause the common cold – so they’re good for transporting things into humans – but they lack the DNA needed to actually replicate. So you won’t catch a cold from the vaccine and the protein it produces can’t harm you, either.
Since January, scientists at the pharma giant were cutting the spike into different pieces to see which piece of the protein produced the best immune response, Stoffels says. Equally important was that the protein could be mass produced, he adds. “That’s why it took like 10 weeks to do this to make sure we have the best immunogenicity as well as the most optimized production.”
The Johnson & Johnson technique differs from that of Moderna, which has been quick to kick off a trial with the U.S. government. Instead of DNA Moderna injects what’s known as messenger RNA (mRNA) – the molecule that transfers genetic code instructions from DNA to the part of a cell that makes proteins – so that humans themselves can produce the spike proteins that train their bodies to produce antibodies.
The same J&J technique has been used to varying degrees of success by Johnson & Johnson, previously being used to treat HIV, ebola and zika. It’s thanks to those previous projects that the company can move fast with a COVID-19 vaccine. “That’s where we have a validated pathway to get there. And that’s why we can quite accurately say we go September into clinical studies.”
Read more: The Latest Info On Pharmaceutical Treatments And Vaccines For Coronavirus