Social enterprise team takes on pharma giants in race for Covid vaccine

A Covid-19 vaccine made by a social enterprise could be ready from early 2021.

VacEquity Global Health – a new venture set up by Imperial College London to develop the vaccine – could achieve its goal “in the first two quarters of next year, if things go extremely well”, according to its lead scientist.

But, speaking at the Royal Society of Medicine on Tuesday, Professor Robin Shattock, Imperial’s head of mucosal infection and immunity, stressed there was no guarantee that any of the 170 or so vaccines in development worldwide would work, nor that the data would be robust enough for them to be licensed. “At the moment there’s a lot of speculation and we really need to deal with facts and data rather than overpromising and under-delivering,” he said.


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VacEquity Global Health was incorporated last month as a private company limited by shares. A statement released last Sunday describes it as a social enterprise with a mission to “rapidly develop vaccines to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection and distribute them as widely as possible in the UK and overseas, including to low- and middle-income countries”.

Right now we think the focus should be on how to solve the problem rather than how to make money out of it - Simon Hepworth

The new company will waive royalties for the UK and for low-income countries, and charge “only modest cost-plus prices” to sustain the enterprise’s work, accelerate global distribution and support new research.  It may, however, charge higher prices in wealthier nations such as the US, Singapore or the Gulf countries, the New York Times has reported.

Documents available on the Companies House website identify two 'significant' shareholders: Robin Shattock has 40% of the shares, while Imperial College Innovations Limited has 39.64%. It is understood, however, that Imperial College has a 'golden' share in the company, which means it has a right to veto decisions and would need to approve any changes to the social mission. Pioneers Post also understands that a commitment may exist to reinvest 100% of any profits back into the social mission – although we were unable to confirm this as we went to press.



Dr Simon Hepworth, director of enterprise at Imperial College, said they wanted to set up a social enterprise because it provided the flexibility to work with multiple partners while distributing the vaccine as widely as possible, including to the world’s poorest people. “Social enterprise fits with our mission: applying scientific discoveries for the benefit of society. Right now we think the focus should be on how to solve the problem rather than how to make money out of it.” The social enterprise is still likely to work with pharmaceutical companies, he added, “just not on an exclusive basis”.

VacEquity is funded by Imperial College and life science investor Morningside Ventures, the Hong Kong life science investor, which in 2015 gave $350m to Harvard’s school of public health. Imperial’s team also received more than £40m of public money and another £5m from donors. 

The technology is well-suited to rapid manufacturing including in relatively small facilities, which could prove crucial for distribution in remote areas 

For-profit multinationals and biotech startups have so far dominated the race to develop a vaccine, especially in the US.

But VacEquity’s approach could hold its own, in part because it is developing a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to manufacture, Shattock told the New York Times.

The technology being used is “well-suited to rapid manufacturing including in relatively small facilities, which could prove crucial in ensuring distribution in remote areas and in low- and middle-income countries,” Hepworth said. 

The UK Vaccine Taskforce, set up by the government to lead national efforts to find and manufacture a Covid-19 vaccine, has given strong backing to Imperial College. Chair Kate Bingham praised the “breathaking” speed at which the team had advanced its technology and said it showed “great promise”. Her taskforce would “ensure that they receive the support needed to accelerate the clinical development, manufacture and launch of its promising vaccine”, she added.


Joining forces

There have been other effort to sidestep profits for big pharma. A partnership between the University of Oxford and British firm AstraZeneca has promised to distribute their potential vaccine at no profit while the pandemic lasts, though the company may seek profits if demand continues longer-term.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca team has received $1bn from the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and is beginning phase three clinical trials. 

Shattock said the two teams were “often seen to be in a race against each other”, but were in fact collaborating closely: “The two approaches may well be able to be used together… we’re trying to work together and make a vaccine in the fastest possible time.” 

The VacEquity vaccine will enter phase one and two human trials on 15 June with 300 people, with an efficacy trial involving 6,000 people planned for October. 

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this week, Shattock said his team was planning “to put together capacity to make enough vaccines for the whole of the UK population, we hope the government will secure funding to allow us to do that.”

Thomas Breuer, chief medical officer at GSK – which is joining forces with French firm Sanofi to develop a vaccine – said the first successful vaccines would likely be for emergency use only, or for certain groups such as healthcare workers.

Speaking at the Royal Society of Medicine webinar alongside Professor Shattock, he said it was not possible to predict which team would win the race at this stage. “I hope several of them will actually win, because if you think we need billions of doses to vaccinate the [world] population, you need more than one large manufacturer to do that.”


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