Carey alumnus and CEO of Vaccitech, Bill Enright, is at the helm of the promising coronavirus vaccine that could begin treating patients this fall.
While the world is working to slow the spread of the coronavirus through social distancing and stay-at-home orders, universities and public and private pharmaceutical and biotech companies are racing to develop a vaccine. The most likely timelines for a vaccine range from 12 to 18 months, and that’s if the clinical trials are successful.
But Bill Enright, CEO of Vaccitech and Johns Hopkins Carey Business School alumnus (MS, Business Management ’96), is at the helm of a potential vaccine that could hit the market as early as this fall. Vaccitech developed the vaccine jointly with Oxford University. And because Vaccitech has tested similar vaccines against other coronaviruses, they received license from regulatory agencies in the EU, U.K., and U.S. to fast-track into clinical trials. Trials began on April 23, 2020. Seven days later, Vaccitech and Oxford University announced a partnership with AstraZeneca for global manufacturing and distribution of the vaccine.
In the following Q&A, Enright discusses some of the challenges of this urgent and monumental task.
QUESTION: We’ve seen so many labs and companies shift their focus to finding a treatment for COVID-19. How has COVID-19 impacted Vaccitech specifically or the vaccine biotech industry more broadly?
BILL ENRIGHT: We have a platform technology and are one of the few companies in the world that had clinical data in people demonstrating that with a single dose we could get neutralizing antibodies as well as a strong T cell response against the MERS virus, another coronavirus. This enabled us, in collaboration with our scientific founders at the University of Oxford, to rapidly move a vaccine candidate into pre-clinical testing. The first people were dosed in a phase 1 clinical study on April 23.
On an industry level, this pandemic has raised the awareness of just how unprepared we are globally. Despite HIV, SARS, MERS, and H1N1 influenza, we didn’t listen to the scientists and didn’t make the necessary preparations. It will be interesting to see whether this changes moving forward and if we prepare better for the next one, because there will be a next one.
Vaccitech therapies have overcome many of the common biotech manufacturing obstacles, including scalability and global access. What lessons have you learned in manufacturing that could help other companies and organizations bring a COVID-19 treatment to market faster?
We are working through the scalability issues as we speak. However, even our most successful projections with our other programs don’t come close to the scale required to vaccinate the world. There are approximately 7.8 billion people in the world, the majority of whom will need to be vaccinated. It remains to be determined whether that will be with one dose or more and how long immunity will last once vaccinated.
This presents unique problems not just of scale in manufacture, fill/finish, and distribution. It also presents other issues with regard to access to the vaccine: countries putting up borders to prevent vaccine from being shipped outside borders, rich countries getting vaccines first because they can pay more, poor countries not getting vaccine at all, capitalistic greed in pricing, etc.
The biotech industry has a reputation for competition, not collaboration. Based on your 30-plus years of experience, is competition, collaboration, or a combination of the two the best scenario to bring a vaccine to market as quickly as possible?
Overall I believe that competition is a powerful tool and forces people to be innovative, to find unique solutions to problems. But in the event of a global pandemic we have seen an unprecedented desire of companies to utilize their relative areas of expertise to help advance both potential therapies, devices and vaccines, as quickly as possible.
Pharma competitors such as GSK and Sanofi have partnered. Pharma has partnered with biotech to bring forward new technology approaches in RNA and DNA vaccines. Biotech has partnered with manufacturing organizations to ensure we can make as much vaccine as possible as quickly as possible. Every company that I am aware of, whether big or small, is looking to “not-for-profit” pricing for drugs and vaccines, at least until the pandemic is under control. It is the best of humanity working together to solve a global crisis.