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Pfizer's Decision to Develop mRNA Vaccines on Its Own: Brilliant or Boneheaded?

By Keith Speights and Brian Orelli, PhD - Updated Apr 1, 2021 at 8:12AM

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It's too soon to know for sure, but Pfizer could be moving in a good direction.

Pfizer (PFE 1.51%) worked with its German partner BioNTech (BNTX -3.89%) to develop and launch the world's first COVID-19 vaccine. But now the big drugmaker says that it plans to develop future messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines on its own. In this Motley Fool Live video recorded on March 24, 2021, Motley Fool contributors Keith Speights and Brian Orelli discuss whether or not this is a smart strategy for Pfizer.

Keith Speights: Let's switch to another story. This is semi-COVID related and I say semi. In a Wall Street Journal interview, Pfizer's CEO, Albert Bourla, stated that his company plans to develop mRNA vaccines on its own without the help of their partner, BioNTech. The ticker for BioNTech is BNTX. Pfizer and BioNTech work together on their messenger RNA-based COVID vaccine. Do you think this is good news for Pfizer or is it a mistake for them to try to go it alone with mRNA?

Brian Orelli: Pharmas license drugs because they're incapable of developing them on their own. The corollary is also true, pharmas don't need to license drugs if they can do it on their own. Pfizer's CEO seems to think that he has enough knowledge and intellectual property to develop the mRNA-based drugs on their own.

Obviously, the CEO is going to know a lot more about the company's capabilities and freedom to work in the space than investors. The conclusion is that it's a good move as long as Pfizer doesn't really need BioNTech and I think it's hard for investors to know that at this point. You just have to take a wait-and-see attitude toward Pfizer and take them at their word that they are going to be able to develop mRNA-based drugs.

Speights: Yeah, I think there was a quote from Pfizer's CEO where he said that they learned more in a year than they would have in a decade, which probably isn't an overstatement. That's probably not too much of an exaggeration there, and obviously, Pfizer I think they were familiar with mRNA technology already, because they already had a partnership with BioNTech.

This could very well be a smart move for them. Obviously, if they develop vaccines on their own, they'll be able to keep all the profits. Right now, they're having to split the profits 50-50 with BioNTech for the COVID-19 vaccine. But of course, the two companies still have work that they've done together and that will still progress.

But this is an interesting move I think on Pfizer's part. I personally would have expected that maybe you would have seen them announce more partnerships with BioNTech or maybe even acquire BioNTech, but that's not happening. They're going to go their own way and it's, I think, an interesting move that could pay off big time over the long run if, like you're saying, Pfizer really does know what it's doing here.

Orelli: Yeah, and they set up a whole bunch of manufacturing capacity. So, if they're assuming that their manufacturing needs are going to go down substantially as the vaccine gets rolled out, and they no longer need to be mass producing the vaccine, and maybe a yearly cycle is a lot easier than mass producing as quickly as possible, then maybe they need that capacity. They might as well use that capacity that they set up for some other mRNA-based vaccine or even a cancer, they could use it to treat cancer as well.

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Pfizer Inc. Stock Quote
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BioNTech SE
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