Pfizer and BioNTech announce joint development of a potential COVID-19 vaccine

Darrell Etherington

Pharma giant Pfizer announced on Tuesday that it's working on a potential COVID-19 vaccine with BioNTech, a German company working on new kinds of immunotherapy treatments. The joint effort, confirmed Tuesday via a signed letter of intent, will see both partners work together on a messenger RNA-based vaccine that will seek to prevent people from contracting the new coronavirus.

It's worth a reminder that any vaccine is going to take, at minimum, between a year and 18 months to develop and certify for general human use, so don't think that this is going to result in any kind of short-term solution. But the collaboration does bring together one of the largest and most established players in the realm of pharmaceutical biotech with a younger company working at the forefront of mRNA-based immune therapies.

These therapies don't use samples of the virus itself, as typical vaccines do (in either dead or weakened form, to jump-start the body's natural defenses). Instead, they rely on RNA to kickstart the production of proteins similar enough to the virus that they trigger the body's development of antibodies effective against the actual target.

This collaboration should result in a clinical test that could kick off as early as April. Both parties aren't starting from scratch in terms of their work on mRNA-based vaccines: they began working together on R&D to create treatments for the flu starting in 2018.

While work on the collaborative effort begins immediately, across teams located in both the U.S. and Germany, the two partners still have to hammer out details, including financial terms and commercialization of whatever results. The fact that they're willing to begin working before the ink is dry on those details should give you some idea of the urgency felt behind the project.

This isn't the only mRNA-based potential COVID-19 vaccine in development: Earlier this week, Moderna announced that they'd already begun human clinical trials of their own coronavirus immunotherapy, after fast-tracking its development in partnership with the National Institutes of Health.