We often take vaccines for granted: “Yes, of course I need to get my shots, and those shots will be available.”
But vaccine development isn’t magic. It’s science and—especially during a pandemic—logistics. The coronavirus crisis has led to a veritable gold rush (and what some may call an arms race) in the biopharmaceutical industry. One company thinks it has a major advantage in that particular race: manufacturing.
The firm is Covaxx, a spinout of companies within the biotech firms United Biomedical and United Neuroscience (recently re-dubbed as Vaxxinity). Covaxx tells Fortune that its specific technology can give it a leg up over the dozens of larger companies ranging from Johnson & Johnson to AstraZeneca, as well as fellow upstarts like Moderna, in the necessary aspect of delivering a vaccine to people on time.
Why does Covaxx think it’s special? Its reasoning combines cool science, geopolitics, and the assistance of professionals like Mei Mei Hu—a luminary who is trying to engineer an Alzheimer’s vaccine and who also happens to be a McKinsey consultant with a Harvard Law degree and a rare female executive in an industry not known for its diversity.
Hu has help from the likes of Covaxx cofounder and vice chairman Peter Diamandis, known better for his work with the X Prize Foundation and Singularity University, who was excited by the prospect of using United Biomedical’s platforms to treat infectious diseases. “It was the idea of using vaccines to treat chronic diseases. Can you activate the immune system to bring your body back to a state of normalcy?” he tells Fortune, adding that the company’s work on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s captured his attention.
The science, still in early stages, is fascinating. Diamandis compares it to a cop walking the beat, but for a biological threat—that is, it requires a more targeted approach than searching for one criminal. Viruses attack multiple sites within our bodies, he says, and we must address all of them if we seek true protection.
“If it’s a police force, how many police are there on a city block?” Diamandis asks, referring to the various regions of the coronavirus that can be targeted. “And then: How effective are those police at actually neutralizing the criminals?”
But all the experimental science in the world means nothing if patients can’t ultimately get their hands on a proven COVID vaccine. That’s where Hu thinks that Covaxx has an advantage. Though the company is independent, it can rely on the manufacturing capacity that United Biomedical can provide around the globe.
“I think our vaccine candidate is one of the best. We have a platform that we know how to scale,” she tells Fortune. “You have to actually be able to manufacture it. Doubling a recipe doesn’t always work, so it’s much easier to have a proven platform that you know how to scale.”
Hu points out that many of the coronavirus candidates in development have to be chilled with liquid nitrogen and can’t be kept in conventional freezers for more than a few days. “I don’t think people realize that,” she says. “Producing 10,000 doses is different from producing 1 million and very different from producing 100 million. We don’t naturally keep things like that in a freezer.” Covaxx’s technology, she says, would make distribution far easier.
The company says that it will enter human trials of its vaccine candidate within the next few weeks in Taiwan, which would potentially serve as a major manufacturing site in the future. It’s also aiming for early-stage trials in the U.S. with the University of Nebraska Medical Center by this fall.
“The interesting thing about Taiwan, is this is already a nationalist thing,” referring to the global vaccine arms race. “These are considerations we’ve never had to consider, but they’re ones we have to consider in COVID time.”
The goals are broad: 100 million doses of the vaccine by the end of the first quarter of 2021, according to Hu—and somewhere between 500 million to one billion by the end of next year.