Everest bags COVID-19 program in bid to conquer Chinese mRNA market

The Chinese mRNA sector is heating up. In the wake of megarounds by its compatriots, Everest Medicines has bought its way into the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine space through a deal with Providence Therapeutics.

China has relied on technologies other than mRNA to vaccinate its citizens so far. However, with mRNA emerging as the preferred approach in many countries, Chinese companies are lining up to bring the technology to their homeland and its neighbors. Fosun Pharma, having partnered with BioNTech early in the crisis, is leading the race, but delays have created opportunities for rivals.

Everest is the latest company to target the Chinese market. The publicly traded business has a track record of securing the Chinese rights for drugs developed overseas, notably Gilead Sciences' antibody-drug conjugate Trodelvy, and has identified COVID-19 vaccines as its next area of expansion.

The latest deal gives Everest rights to Providence’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate PTX-COVID19-B and follow-up assets. Canada’s Providence is currently studying the vaccine in a phase 2 trial, having previously shown it triggers the production of neutralizing antibodies that work against the original coronavirus and variants of concern. Providence has variant-specific shots in preclinical testing.

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Everest is paying $50 million upfront for COVID-19 vaccines and the same again for assets including the mRNA technology platform. In return, Everest is gaining rights to Providence’s COVID-19 vaccines in greater China, Singapore and certain other parts of Asia. The partners will split profits in greater China and Singapore up to $100 million, after which Providence will get single-digit royalties. In other markets, Providence will receive royalties in the mid-teens from the get-go. 

While COVID-19 is the initial focus, the deal positions Everest to go after other mRNA opportunities. The second $50 million upfront sets Everest up to collaborate with Providence on two additional vaccines or therapies as well as to use its partner’s mRNA platform to create further prospects. Before the pandemic, Providence was focused on the oncology applications of mRNA. Providence is transferring its manufacturing processes to Everest to support commercialization in China.

The non-COVID-19 part of the deal, which is tied to up to $300 million in milestones, could establish Everest as a player in China’s nascent mRNA sector. In recent months, Chinese mRNA players Abogen Biosciences and Stemirna Therapeutics have raised $700 million and $188 million, respectively. The near-term focus is on COVID-19 but, as is happening at Moderna, the pandemic work could serve as a launchpad for exploration of the broader potential of mRNA. 

Established Chinese drugmakers are moving into the space, too. Notably, the state-owned Sinopharm is now working on a mRNA vaccine against the coronavirus, having already developed an inactivated virus shot.