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COVID-19 ignited year of risk, rewards for pharma leaders

COVID-19 set in motion a wave of innovation and collaboration that has transformed the pharmaceutical industry, executives said as they reflected on the pandemic's first year.

While the global death toll from the virus has tragically reached 2.6 million, "liberation is on the horizon," Pfizer Inc. CEO Albert Bourla said in a March 11 open letter to mark one year since the World Health Organization declaring a pandemic.

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Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla

Source: Pfizer

Pfizer, with German partner BioNTech SE, is one of three drugmakers who have already produced an authorized COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S., alongside Moderna Inc. and Johnson & Johnson.

In the letter, where Bourla surveyed the progress the pharmaceutical industry has made responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, the CEO drew attention to the collaboration between entities like Pfizer and BioNTech; Moderna and the U.S. National Institutes of Health; and most recently J&J and Merck & Co. Inc., the latter of which agreed to help the healthcare giant meet manufacturing goals.

In the U.S., about 94 million vaccine doses have been administered, Morgan Stanley analysts said in a March 10 note. The analysts believe that about 75% of people over the age of 12 could be vaccinated by mid-summer with a consistent rate of about 2 million shots per day.

Bourla pointed to the innovation that had to take place to develop a meaningful vaccine in record time.

"We found new ways to use digital technology, to partner with regulators and to perform tasks in parallel rather than sequentially — all of which allowed our scientists and clinicians to advance the clinical trials for our COVID-19 vaccine with unprecedented speed, without compromising safety or quality," the CEO said. "We watched as human ingenuity solved problems that we hadn't even pondered just 12 months ago."

Fellow vaccine-maker Novavax Inc. is in late-stage clinical trials for its own COVID-19 shot, aiming to bring another solution to the forefront.

"At Novavax, we mark this grim milestone with a renewed sense of resolve and steadfastness to help bring this global pandemic to an end," CEO Stanley Erck said in a statement.

Success out of urgency

Another drugmaker taking stock of the pandemic's lessons is Gilead Sciences Inc., the first to receive emergency use authorization for a COVID-19 treatment in the form of the antiviral remdesivir, marketed as Veklury.

The effort to learn more about the coronavirus and discover which drugs could help keep patients out of hospital was top priority, Gilead Senior Vice President and Virology Therapeutic Area Head Diana Brainard said in an interview.

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Gilead Sciences Senior Vice President and Virology Therapeutic Area Head Diana Brainard
Source: Gilead

"What stood out for us in the pandemic with Veklury was obviously the speed with which we had to move in order to really have an impact," Brainard told S&P Global Market Intelligence. "Feeling like every day counts for such a long time while infections kept increasing, there was a setting of incredible time pressure coupled with a lack of understanding of the disease that we're trying to study."

Now, the company is using lessons learned from the success of Pfizer and Moderna's messenger RNA coronavirus vaccines to focus this technology on a long-awaited inoculation for HIV, Brainard said.

And the advances in vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 continue to develop. Eli Lilly and Co., for example, announced March 10 that an antibody cocktail made up of bamlanivimab and etesivimab reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by 87%.

The developments have led to financial windfalls at these companies, as well. Cowen analysts said the most recent results from Lilly could push antibody sales to the high end or even above the $1 billion to $2 billion the company forecasted for 2021.

Veklury quickly became a blockbuster drug for Gilead, bringing in almost $2 billion in the fourth quarter of 2020, while Pfizer expects to bring in $15 billion in COVID-19 vaccine sales in 2021.

'A new era for vaccines'

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought immunology back into the spotlight, Jefferies analyst Peter Welford said in a note on March 10, the day U.S. lawmakers passed the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief spending package.

"COVID-19 has introduced immunology to the masses and heightened infectious disease awareness, with governments also reassessing preparedness and health economics of prevention," Welford said. "We see this kick-starting a new era for vaccines; boosting volumes, raising value, and expediting timelines."

Companies like Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc. are still planning to bring new vaccines to the fight despite not having the edge of a first-to-market candidate.

Inovio's candidate is in phase 2 development in the U.S. with trials also running in China and South Korea, the company's Senior Vice President of R&D Kate Broderick told S&P Global Market Intelligence. The shot is considered a DNA vaccine, which is more stable than mRNA and can be stored at normal fridge temperatures.

"The vaccine landscape has changed a lot in the last 12 months, which is amazing for everybody," Broderick said. "We have vaccines being routinely used in the U.S. now, but that is not the case in many other countries, so that's changed the dynamic of clinical testing."

A year into the pandemic, it is time "to start thinking about COVID-19 as an endemic disease" — one that will require vigilance year to year.

"Realistically, we're looking at something we're going to need seasonal boosters for, so I think there's a lot of room for more temperature-stable vaccines from a logistical standpoint," Broderick said. Where a DNA vaccine can also be useful is in addressing variants of the virus, to be able to "plug in" the genetic code and quickly create shots that can prevent those newer forms of the disease, Broderick added.

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