To ameliorate a pandemic that infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci calls his “worst nightmare,” a winner-takes-all solution won’t be enough.
Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, this week told attendees at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s annual convention that developing multiple vaccines and therapeutics will be necessary to tamp down the infections caused by the virus’s global spread.
In a sign of the times, Fauci shared his thoughts with newly appointed BIO president and CEO Michelle McMurry-Heath remotely on Monday, and a video of their conversation was broadcast Tuesday during the digital conference to tee up a pair of panel discussions on the various vaccines in development and the challenges of clinical trials, manufacturing scale-up, and global implementation.
Fauci, head of the NIAID since 1984, has dealt with a slew of viral outbreaks, ranging from HIV to the 2009 swine flu pandemic.
“The entire world never felt threatened by any given disease,” he said. “[The level of threat] was always depending upon who you are, where you lived, your circumstances.”
The novel coronavirus is a new, respiratory-borne infection that likely jumped to humans from an animal host with “a very high degree of transmissibility and a significant degree of morbidity and mortality,” he said. “We’ve had outbreaks that had one or two of those three or four characteristics, but never all four.”
Handling COVID-19 is an entirely different challenge because it isn’t regionally contained, having spread with extraordinary speed to more than 200 countries, he said.
“In a period of four months, it has devastated the world: 110,000 deaths in the United States, and millions and millions of infections worldwide—and it isn’t over yet,” he said.
A bright spot amid the sickness and deaths the virus has caused has been the life sciences industry response to the pandemic, Fauci said.
“I’m very heartened by the fact that the industry has really stepped to the plate, very much differently than what we saw with SARS,” he said. “SARS had a degree of transmissibility that it burned itself out by pure public health measures—no way is that going to happen with this virus, for the reasons I just articulated about its transmissibility.”
McMurry-Heath, an immunologist who previously served as an executive at Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) and a senior official with the FDA, said BIO’s 1,000 members have put forth more than 500 potential treatments and vaccines for the virus.
While companies usually fight fiercely to create novel therapeutics and vaccines for first-to-market advantage, Fauci says tackling COVID-19 is likely to require multiple companies’ contributions.
“There’s going to be more than one winner in the vaccine field, because we’re going to need vaccines for the entire world, billions and billions of doses, so I’m almost certain that we’re going to have multiple candidates that make it to the goal line, get approved, and get widely used,” he said. “I think you’re going to see the same thing with therapeutics, not only multiple therapeutics of the same class, but the fact that there are multiple different therapeutic avenues to pursue, from the direct antiviral to the subsequent offshoots of things, like the hyper-inflammatory responses that you see with this.”
Unusually, in some respects the response from the pharma industry has outpaced the public health effort, he added.
An investigational vaccine developed by Moderna (NASDAQ: MRNA), which just started a Phase 2 study, is slated to enter Phase 3 testing in July. Fauci said the collaborative process that led to that candidate’s creation started Jan. 15 when the company and NIAID teamed up to create a vaccine following the public release by Chinese scientists of the virus’s genetic sequence.
“We developed the vaccine in an mRNA platform and 62 days later we were in a Phase 1 trial,” Fauci said. “There’s no doubt that’s a world indoor record. I’ve never seen anything go that fast.”
Since then the federal government has partnered with a handful of other companies to de-risk their efforts to find a new treatment or vaccine by helping to finance production of doses on at at-risk basis, he said.