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Is mRNA the Key to a Coronavirus Vaccine?

By Adria Cimino - Updated Apr 9, 2020 at 8:07AM

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Biotech and big pharma are putting vaccines using messenger RNA to the coronavirus test.

The race to find a coronavirus vaccine has brought a new approach to the forefront. The method involves harnessing the power of messenger RNA, and Sanofi (SNY -7.11%) is the latest company to give it a try, as part of a collaboration with Translate Bio (TBIO). Other companies working on this technique include Moderna (MRNA 1.83%), BioNTech (BNTX 2.36%), and CureVac.

Now, the question is whether mRNA will be the winning ingredient. And if so, is there room for more than one player?

The structure of DNA is shown against a black background.

Image source: Getty Images.

Let's have a look at the programs, starting with the leader of the pack, Moderna. The entire pipeline at this clinical-stage biotech company is based on using mRNA, which carries instructions from DNA to the part of the cell that produces the proteins the body needs to function.

Using mRNA, Moderna's investigative products give the body's cells instructions to make proteins that could prevent or treat disease. The technique may allow for quicker vaccine-development time. In more traditional methods, cell-culture systems and animal testing alone often take at least a year. Moderna brought its vaccine from discovery to delivery for human trials in just 42 days.

Last month the company said the first participant in its phase 1 clinical trial for the vaccine had been dosed. The trial, conducted by the National Institutes of Health, will study the safety and immunogenicity of the investigational vaccine. Moderna, on its own (not in partnership with NIH), aims to begin a phase 2 study in a few months.

Extending agreements

Translate Bio and BioNTech are collaborating with big pharma companies to advance mRNA vaccines for coronavirus. BioNTech has partnered with Pfizer (PFE 0.34%), and expects its vaccine candidate to enter clinical trials at the end of April. The companies were already working together on an mRNA vaccine for influenza. Sanofi and Translate Bio were also partners prior to the coronavirus program, working on mRNA vaccines for infectious diseases; they recently said they would extend the agreement to develop a coronavirus vaccine. Sanofi and Translate Bio may have a candidate ready for clinical trials by the end of the year, BioPharma Dive reported, citing a Sanofi spokesman.

CureVac, like Moderna, hasn't partnered with a big pharmaceutical company. It's coordinating the development of its mRNA vaccine candidate with Germany's Paul Ehrlich Institute to move development along as quickly as possible. CureVac plans to begin clinical trials early this summer and is already preparing two main locations for the study. The company, using data from its phase 1 rabies study that involved a low dose for immunization, aims for a low dose in the coronavirus vaccine as well.

More than 40 coronavirus vaccine candidates are involved in clinical evaluation, according to the World Health Organization, and of those, seven are mRNA vaccines. The outbreak, which took root in China in January and then expanded into a pandemic, has resulted in more than 1.44 million confirmed cases worldwide so far. The number of companies racing to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, is due to the severity of many cases and the fact that there currently is no approved treatment.

Crowded playing field

Though the playing field is crowded, there is likely room for several winners in this race. We can look at the influenza market size as a reference. The U.S. flu vaccine market, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 16%, is expected to reach $8.6 billion by 2027, according to Coherent Market Insights. For the most recent flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website listed vaccine products from Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK -4.32%), Seqirus, and AstraZeneca (AZN 0.62%).

Similarly, we could imagine several vaccine products sharing the coronavirus market in the future. Companies are acknowledging the need for multiple efforts, and for teamwork. Sanofi, which is working on an additional coronavirus vaccine program that doesn't involve mRNA, believes "the more approaches we explore, the better our likelihood of success," said David Loew, Sanofi's global head of vaccines, in a news release. And last month Pfizer set out a five-point plan inviting biopharmaceutical companies to join it in the coronavirus fight. Points include sharing tools, clinical development and regulatory expertise, and manufacturing capabilities.

As for the mRNA candidates, it's too early to say if they'll work in humans and become the first winners of this vaccine race. But due to the rapidity of their development, we may have information about their efficacy before trials of other coronavirus-vaccine candidates report results.

What does all of this mean for investors?

I wouldn't invest in a company solely for its work on coronavirus programs. Though these programs may lead to short-term boosts for the companies' shares, they're unlikely to drive share gains once the pandemic is over and people turn their attention to other subjects. And addressing epidemics isn't the most profitable area for companies, due to their limited time frames and the ethical questions of pricing vaccines high.

However, if a company working on a coronavirus program also has a solid pipeline or successful products on the market, then it may make a good candidate for your biotech or pharmaceutical portfolio.

Adria Cimino has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Stocks Mentioned

Pfizer Inc. Stock Quote
Pfizer Inc.
$49.95 (0.34%) $0.17
Sanofi Stock Quote
$45.20 (-7.11%) $-3.46
Moderna, Inc. Stock Quote
Moderna, Inc.
$174.27 (1.83%) $3.13
Translate Bio, Inc. Stock Quote
Translate Bio, Inc.
BioNTech SE Stock Quote
BioNTech SE
$160.92 (2.36%) $3.71
GSK Stock Quote
$38.30 (-4.32%) $-1.73
AstraZeneca PLC Stock Quote
AstraZeneca PLC
$66.30 (0.62%) $0.41

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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