A Covid-19 Vaccine Could Take Longer Than Investors Expect

A researcher works on a vaccine against the new coronavirus COVID-19 at the Copenhagen's University research lab in Copenhagen, Denmark, on March 23, 2020.

Photograph by THIBAULT SAVARY/AFP via Getty Images

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Among investors, the conventional wisdom is to expect a Covid-19 vaccine in no more than 18 months. But that may be a wildly optimistic timeline. “I think there is a negligible chance that we will have a vaccine that is suitable for widespread administration in 2021,” says Dr. Geoffrey Porges, an analyst at SVB Leerink.

A vaccine for the majority of the population—necessary to end the social distancing restrictions that will remain after the lockdowns are lifted—will not come until 2022 or 2023, Porges says, although an unproven vaccine approved for health-care workers could come next year.

To stop the virus that causes Covid-19, a vaccine would need to be administered to billions of people worldwide. Under normal conditions, vaccines generally go through a decade or more of testing, and up to 96% of experimental vaccines fail to reach the market. Of course, the timeline for a Covid-19 vaccine will be more compressed. But regulators need to be confident that the vaccine won’t put healthy people at risk. “We have to be really careful here,” Porges says.

Others are more bullish on timing. The biotech company
Moderna
(ticker: MRNA) says that its vaccine could be ready to administer to health-care workers by this fall under an emergency use authorization. The company dosed its first patient with its vaccine on March 16, and hopes to begin a Phase 3 trial, involving thousands of subjects, by early in the fall.

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel says that the odds that one of the Covid-19 vaccines under development will be widely available within 18 months are “pretty high.” The company said late on Thursday that the federal government had committed up to $483 million toward development of its vaccine.

Hopes for a quick vaccine surged when
Johnson & Johnson
(JNJ) said its Covid-19 vaccine could be ready for emergency use by early 2021. But regulators would need to decide who could access the vaccine, which would have only a few months of testing by then.

Two of the biggest vaccine makers,
GlaxoSmithKline
(GSK) and
Sanofi
(SNY), announced on Tuesday what could be a vitally important collaboration. It combines a Sanofi effort to identify a Covid-19 antigen with Glaxo’s vaccine adjuvant technology, which makes a vaccine more potent. They say their vaccine could be ready by the second half of 2021, and they would be able to make hundreds of millions of doses a year.

More than 80 other vaccine programs are in various stages, according to the Milken Institute. That diversity of efforts notionally gives the scientific community a greater chance of finding one or more vaccines that work. Experts say that more than one Covid-19 vaccine will probably be needed.

There is some good news. Moderna’s Bancel says that the virus that causes Covid-19 is relatively simple, improving the odds of finding an effective vaccine. “This is a virus that the scientific community believes is not that complicated from a virology standpoint,” he says.

Write to Josh Nathan-Kazis at josh.nathan-kazis@barrons.com


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