No company has developed a COVID-19 vaccine that's been proven to be safe and effective yet. But several appear to be getting a big boost for their efforts from Uncle Sam.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the Trump administration has selected five finalists among the companies developing COVID-19 vaccine candidates. Each of these drugmakers will receive federal money plus assistance in their clinical studies and manufacturing efforts.
There's a reasonable case to be made for the U.S. government to help the companies with the most promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates. But I think the reported list raised a big question: Why wasn't Novavax (NASDAQ:NVAX) in the top five?
White House favorites
Which drugmakers did make the Trump administration's list of finalists? To no one's surprise, Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA) was in the group. The biotech's COVID-19 vaccine candidate, mRNA-1273, is already in a phase 2 clinical study. Moderna reported encouraging initial results from its phase 1 study of the vaccine last month.
Another obvious contender is the partnership between AstraZeneca (NASDAQ:AZN) and the University of Oxford. Like Moderna, the AstraZeneca-Oxford team is currently evaluating COVID-19 vaccine candidate AZD1222 in a phase 2 clinical study.
It also makes sense to me that Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) made the cut. Pfizer is working with German biotech BioNTech (NASDAQ:BNTX) to develop messenger RNA COVID-19 vaccine BNT162. The vaccine is in phase 1 clinical trials in the U.S. and Germany.
Two companies that haven't advanced COVID-19 vaccine candidates to clinical testing yet were also included in the White House favorites. Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) selected a candidate in March and plans to begin early stage clinical testing in September. Merck (NYSE:MRK) only recently jumped into the COVID-19 vaccine race, announcing on May 26 that it will acquire Themis, a small company that's developing a COVID-19 vaccine, and partner with nonprofit organization IAVI to develop another COVID-19 vaccine.
The argument for Novavax
I think there's a strong case to be made that Novavax deserved to be on the Trump administration's list of finalists. Importantly, the biotech is ahead of both J&J and Merck. Novavax began its phase 1/2 clinical trial of COVID-19 vaccine candidate NVX‑CoV2373 late last month.
It seems likely that Novavax will advance NVX-CoV2373 into phase 2 testing before J&J and Merck crank up phase 1 clinical trials of their respective COVID-19 vaccine candidates. That's a pretty big head start that on the surface appears to have been overlooked by the White House.
What's more, Novavax's COVID-19 vaccine candidate is clearly promising. Last month, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) awarded its biggest grant to date for a COVID-19 vaccine, committing to provide up to $388 million in funding to Novavax for its COVID-19 vaccine efforts.
CEPI's endorsement is a big deal. The organization was founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, U.K.-based research charity the Wellcome Trust, the World Economic Forum, and the governments of Norway and India. It has also received financial support from the governments of Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Ethiopia, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Norway, and the U.K.
In addition, Novavax should be in a good position to scale up the production of its vaccine thanks to the CEPI funding. The biotech announced on May 27 that it's acquiring Praha Vaccines in a deal that will enable it to produce over 1 billion doses per year of its vaccine beginning in 2021.
Sure, Novavax is still a clinical-stage biotech. But so is Moderna. And unlike Moderna, Novavax has already reported successful phase 3 results for another vaccine based on its nanoparticle technology -- flu vaccine NanoFlu.
Will it matter?
Some might argue that politics played a role in the companies selected by the White House. Three of the companies making the cut were invited to meet with President Trump in March. U.K.-based AstraZeneca and Merck were the two exceptions. All of them but Moderna are big pharmaceutical companies. And Moderna has been joined at the hip with the National Institutes of Health since early this year.
It's likely that we'll never know for sure why Novavax didn't make the Trump administration's list of finalists and Merck, a late-comer to the COVID-19 vaccine scene, did. But will it really matter over the long run? Probably not.
Novavax's CEPI funding should enable the company to advance NVX-CoV2373 through late-stage clinical studies, assuming all goes well with earlier clinical trials. In the end, the COVID-19 vaccines that prove to be the safest and most effective in clinical testing will be the real winners. And those winners may or may not be the ones that the White House handpicked.