Novavax Partners With Gates Foundation Offshoot In Efforts To Develop Malaria And TB Shots
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Novavax Partners With Gates Foundation Offshoot In Efforts To Develop Malaria And TB Shots

Aug 27, 2023

American vaccine maker Novavax on Monday announced plans to share its powerful vaccine technology with the Bill & Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute, a nonprofit biotech spun out from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation five years ago, which could help develop shots for major health threats like malaria, tuberculosis and Shigella.

Novavax was the fourth company to put a vaccine on the U.S. market for Covid-19.

Novavax said it had signed a three-year deal to share its vaccine adjuvant, Matrix-M, with Gates MRI for the organization to use in preclinical research.

Adjuvants are crucial components of many vaccines that work by boosting the immune system, making the shot more powerful and durable.

Novavax's Matrix-M, derived from bark of the Chilean soapbark tree, is one of only a handful of adjuvants licensed for human use and is already a key part of the company's Covid-19 vaccine, the fourth to reach the U.S. market, as well as a highly-anticipated malaria vaccine approved in Ghana.

Emilio Emini, chief executive officer of Gates MRI, said the organization is looking forward to using the adjuvant in some of its "early-stage vaccine programs."

Gates MRI is "committed to developing biomedical interventions that address global health concerns for those in the greatest need," Emini explained, though he did not state the specific vaccine programs the adjuvant would be used for.

The organization's mission is clear, however, and it is likely the early-stage research using Novavax's adjuvant will fall inside these goals, with the organization's website saying it focuses on programs that tackle tuberculosis, also known as TB, malaria, diarrheal diseases, and maternal, newborn and child illnesses in low-and-middle-income countries.

Gates MRI lists Shigella vaccines in its pipeline of pre-clinical work, making it a possible target for the Novavax adjuvant. Diarrhea, though both preventable and treatable, is a leading cause of death and illness each year. Diarrheal disease is the second leading cause of death for children under five and kills around 525,000 children under the age of five each year, according to the World Health Organization. It primarily affects less wealthy countries and tackling diarrheal disease is one of Gates MRI's key goals. Diarrheal disease is often caused by pathogens like E. coli, Shigella and cholera. Shigella, a kind of bacteria that can cause intestinal infections called shigellosis, has a disproportionate impact on children compared to other diarrheal diseases. It also has no vaccine approved by authorities anywhere in the world, Gates MRI said, making it an "urgent" priority.

Gates MRI is also working on vaccines for tuberculosis, which it says are in mid-stage clinical trials. TB is a leading cause of death worldwide and has consistently topped the list of infectious disease killers for years. Covid-19 relegated the scourge to second position—TB still killed 1.6 million people in 2021, according to the WHO—and though Covid is still a problem, TB is likely to reclaim the top spot in the near future. Experts worry increasing resistance to antimicrobial drugs will make TB an even more pressing health threat in the future.

When the U.S. government invested $1.6 billion in Novavax as part of Operation Warp Speed, an effort to rapidly develop a Covid-19 vaccine, the Maryland biotech was considered by many to be a long shot. In more than 30 years of operating, Novavax had not brought a single product to market and it was reportedly close to going under at the time the pandemic came around. The bet paid off and many hoped its much anticipated vaccine, built using more traditional technology than shots from the likes of Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna, would help tackle rising levels of vaccine hesitancy. Manufacturing problems, delays in regulatory approval and other issues meant the shot came to market long after the initial vaccine rush in the U.S. and other wealthy nations had ebbed. Lacking another product and having invested billions in producing its Covid shot, the company is now struggling with diminishing demand and has taken to publicly urging governments to honor their prior purchase commitments with the company as it struggles to stay afloat. The company has expressed doubt over its ability to stay in business under such circumstances.

Novavax Stock Plunges 25% As Vaccine Maker Has ‘Substantial Doubt’ About Staying In Business (Forbes)

How a Struggling Company Won $1.6 Billion to Make a Coronavirus Vaccine (New York Times)

Bill And Melinda Gates Start A Nonprofit Biotech In Boston (Forbes)

The surprising ingredients found in vaccines (BBC)