Pfizer and BioNTech team up to develop mRNA-based shingles vaccine

Pfizer and BioNTech are teaming up to develop an mRNA vaccine for shingles, competing with GlaxoSmithKline’s flagship vaccine for the painful disease that mainly hits older people.

The US drugmaker and its German partner are hoping to build on their success with the Covid-19 vaccine, with BioNTech providing its proprietary mRNA technology and Pfizer contributing its antigen research. Pfizer had previously suggested it may pursue its mRNA vaccine development alone.

Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer’s chief scientific officer, said the pair were continuing “our journey of discovery together, by advancing mRNA technology to tackle another health challenge ripe for scientific innovation, supported by our world-class manufacturing network”. 

Vaccine makers are rushing to invest in mRNA, which was first proven during the pandemic, in a race that will pit existing players against new entrants such as GSK, which is partnering with German biotech CureVac.

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Many are focusing on diseases where existing vaccines are not very effective, such as flu, or where there are none. But Pfizer and BioNTech have chosen to target shingles, for which GSK had a vaccine approved in 2017.

GSK’s Shingrix is more than 90 per cent effective but the UK drugmaker has struggled to increase production to meet demand. Pfizer and BioNTech hope that a shot based on mRNA technology will be easier to scale up than Shingrix, which is a protein-based vaccine with an adjuvant.

The UK drugmaker is banking on Shingrix as one of the big products that will drive growth, as Emma Walmsley, chief executive, faces pressure from activist shareholders to revive its lacklustre pipeline. GSK did not comment.

During the pandemic, sales of Shingrix have been hit by lockdowns and Covid-19 vaccine rollouts, because people are reluctant to receive both shots close together. But in June, GSK forecast it would double the vaccine’s revenue in the next five years. In the third quarter, Shingrix sales were £502m, up 34 per cent year on year.

About one in three Americans get shingles in their lifetime. It is a chronic form of the virus that causes chickenpox, which remains dormant in human nerve cells and can reactivate later in life. It can cause pain that lasts beyond the episode, a condition called postherpetic neuralgia, and in rare cases it can lead to facial paralysis, deafness and blindness.

Ugur Sahin, chief executive of BioNTech, said adults aged over 50 and vulnerable populations such as cancer patients were at increased risk of shingles.

“Our goal is to develop an mRNA vaccine with a favourable safety profile and high efficacy, which is at the same time more easily scalable to support global access.”

Under the terms of the deal, which is the third collaboration between the two companies after influenza and Covid-19, BioNTech will receive $225m upfront, split between a cash payment of $75m and an equity investment of $150m. It will be eligible for milestone payments of up to $200m and a share of gross profits from future product sales.

Pfizer will receive an upfront payment of $25m for its work identifying antigen sequences for the vaccine. The US drugmaker will have commercialisation rights, except in Germany, Turkey and certain developing countries. The parties will share development costs.

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