When considering vaccines for COVID-19, partnerships are driven by both the urgent need for parallel efforts developing multiple potential candidates and the need for rapid, large-scale manufacturing and global distribution. Here are four types of partnerships in which public and private groups engage for vaccine development and production:

  1. Financing: To provide the capital needed for vaccine sponsors to develop and commercialize potential candidates
  2. Technology platform and clinical development: To share, provide or combine technology or clinical development expertise and resources
  3. Manufacturing capacity: To quickly ramp-up vaccine manufacturing capacity and start producing candidates at-risk
  4. Distribution: To enable a more global distribution network

In this edition of our COVID-19 vaccine series, we will highlight the financial, technological and clinical development partnerships that have been created to accelerate COVID-19 vaccines.

As potential vaccines from across the world enter clinical trials, a broad range of public and private entities have mobilized funding to fight COVID-19. Funding may come from public consortia, government sponsorships and grants, or private sector deals.


Considering public consortia, recently the EU led a multilateral initiative that raised $8 billion to fund coronavirus research efforts around the globe and to enable universal and affordable access to solutions. A bulk of the money raised will be put toward the development of vaccines, with a portion also dedicated to other therapeutics and diagnostics. In another effort, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) is working to find solutions. (CEPI is a vaccine-development consortium supported by private donors as well as the United Kingdom, Canada, Belgium, Norway, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands.) CEPI established the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which will accelerate the development, production and deployment of safe and effective diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for COVID-19, with the aim to make them accessible to everyone worldwide.


Public or governmental organizations also look to fund potential solutions. The U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) has invested in several candidates, including those from Oxford/AstraZeneca and Moderna (already in trials), and those from Merck, Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi (yet to initiate human trials). Moderna received up to $483 million for BARDA to advance mRNA-1273 for FDA licensure. In exchange for $1.2 billion, AstraZeneca agreed to provide BARDA with 300 million of the first 400 million doses of their candidate AZD1222 (formerly ChAdOx1 nCoV-19).


Like in the U.S., public entities throughout the EU have funded several vaccine programs. For example, the candidate developed at the University of Oxford is supported by funding from the U.K. government. In addition, the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 program has supported three pre-clinical vaccine development programs, including an RNA-based vaccine from CureVac. However, across these programs in both the U.S. and EU, government prioritization of domestic versus widespread global access is not always explicit. According to former BARDA director Dr. Robin Robinson, BARDA has historically invested with the understanding that it will have the option to be the first purchaser of the vaccine.


Finally, many private companies have inked deals to finance vaccine programs. Across the life sciences industry in April 2020, 118 R&D deals were announced, roughly half of which (65) were for therapies and vaccines related to COVID-19. In the vaccine race specifically, Pfizer will pay BioNTech up to $748 million for their vaccine development partnership, including upfront cash, equity and milestone-based payments. Merck will acquire Themis, a company focused on vaccines and immunomodulation, for its vaccine candidate.


Joining forces to accelerate vaccine clinical development and increase the odds of success


In addition to financing, some groups have come together to share vaccine technology or development expertise. They might be seeking the technology to create the vaccine in the case of sharing platforms like viral vectors. Or they might want to make their current technology more effective in the case of sharing adjuvants. Or sponsors may team up to share expertise to ramp up clinical development and execute global trials.


On the technology front, pharma giants Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline will collaborate on the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, combining Sanofi’s S-protein COVID-19 antigen with GSK’s adjuvant technology. The companies hope to leverage the adjuvant technology to enhance the immune response to the vaccine: If successful, this may reduce the amount of vaccine required per dose, reducing manufacturing burden. A similar technological collaboration employing the adjuvant from U.S.-based Dynavax may help to elicit a robust response in combination with Chinese-based Sinovac’s inactivated virus vaccine candidate, according to ZS analysis of clinical trial data. 


Interestingly, in a rare example of an international public-private partnership, China’s CanSino has partnered with foreign research groups, including the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), to advance the clinical development of its candidate in Canada. Ad5-nCoV was developed using both Chinese and Canadian technology and utilizes a cell line developed by the NRC to grow the viral vector engineered for the vaccine. Citing an unprecedented development timeline, the Canadian government is preparing for local production and clinical trials.


In other partnerships, development expertise is key, as with Merck’s recent announcement that it will partner with the non-profit research organization International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) to develop a vaccine candidate. The candidate was designed and engineered by IAVI scientists, but Merck will be responsible for global regulatory filings.


What is clear from these numerous and varying partnerships is that “ownership” of candidate products can be quite distributed, with no single entity or group forging ahead alone.


While the world waits with great anticipation for these vaccines, potential therapeutics to address viral infection and the immune reaction will have an important role. In an upcoming blog, we will examine the potential treatments that might help us bridge the gap until vaccines are widely available.


For additional information about the evolving COVID-19 pipeline, study results and milestones, please visit our visual COVID-19 vaccine and treatment pipeline tracker. Check back weekly as we provide an updated view of the clinical development landscape and advancements in the search for safe and effective tools to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.