Novavax receives highest funding to develop COVID-19 vaccine

The company was awarded over $1.6 billion by Operation Warp Speed.

ByDr. Sabina Bera
July 9, 2020, 9:02 PM

Novavax, a vaccine development company, was recently awarded over $1.6 billion by the United States government to support commercial-scale manufacturing of their potential coronavirus vaccine.

According to Stanley Erck, CEO of Novavax, the company was selected to be part of the government's Operation Warp Speed program because of its prior experience with two related coronavirus vaccines (SARS and MERS), as well as other infectious diseases such as Ebola.

"We use the same platform," Erck told ABC News' Bob Woodruff. "In all of these different diseases, we take a surface protein on the virus and when you inject it into the body, the body sees it as flu or it sees it as coronavirus -- we add it to an adjuvant which sets off a more powerful immune response and sets off, not just antibodies, but T cells against it."

Three other vaccine companies -- Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and AstraZeneca -- have also received funding through Operation Warp Speed. Each will produce its own coronavirus vaccine, which will be distributed to the population if it proves successful in large-scale clinical trials.

Erck said each company's vaccine is targeting the same virus, but using a different type of vaccine technology. It's still not clear if any of them will prove safe and effective in the long run -- but Erck claims Novavax's candidate must have shown the most promise considering how much funding the company received.

PHOTO: Dr. Nita Patel, Director of Antibody discovery and Vaccine development, lifts a vial with a potential coronavirus, COVID-19, vaccine at Novavax labs in Gaithersburg, Md., March 20, 2020.
Dr. Nita Patel, Director of Antibody discovery and Vaccine development, lifts a vial with a potential coronavirus, COVID-19, vaccine at Novavax labs in Gaithersburg, Md., March 20, 2020, one of the labs developing a vaccine for the coronavirus, COVID-19.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

"They saw our [data] and I have to infer that our data must have been as good as or better than the others," Erck said. "Some of the vaccines require freezing them at minus 80 degrees, and ours happens to be stable at room temperature and at refrigerator temperature, so there are a few characteristics of our vaccine that make it more attractive."

Novavax's vaccine has been tested in animals, and the company has already started testing it in humans. Erck expects phase 1 trials to be completed by the end of this month, which should help establish if the vaccine is safe enough to proceed to larger studies. This will be followed by phase 2 and phase 3 trials to make sure it is effective and stable. He estimates that the cost of all these trials will amount to about $1 billion.

Like many vaccine companies, Novavax is ramping up manufacturing before it knows if its vaccine is effective. That way, the company hopes to have 100 million doses ready to go as soon as positive data becomes available.

"We concluded early on," Erck told ABC News, "if we delayed -- if we decided to wait until we saw how the mouse [tests] worked and the non-human primate [tests] worked -- and didn't start the manufacturing investment, which is a huge investment, you'd lose six months. And in a pandemic every day counts."

If the vaccine proves effective, Erck hopes to be able to vaccinate front-line health care workers as early as the end of this year.

"The first people to get it are going to be the front-line health care workers and they'll get the first 50 million doses or however many doses," Erck said. "And then it'll start to spread out for people who are most at risk of getting seriously ill."

When asked about the effectiveness of the vaccine, Erck said early animal studies are promising. While most vaccines take about 10 to 15 years to develop, Erck said the process can be sped up safely.

Sabina Bera, M.D., M.S., is a psychiatrist in New York, and a contributor to ABC News Medical Unit.

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