J&J ends R&D at Janssen's infectious disease and vaccine unit

More than six months after Johnson & Johnson merged its infectious disease and vaccine units, the healthcare giant is cutting research and development for the unit altogether, according to sources familiar with the decision. 

A Janssen spokesperson said Wednesday that aside from working on an E.coli prevantive vaccine and continuing to provide access to marketed HIV products, the company is "planning to exit other R&D programs in ID&V." At the same time, Netherlands-based publication De Telegraaf reported that the company's Leiden vaccine unit was closing.

Multiple sources have told Fierce Biotech that the infectious disease and vaccine unit is closing completely, however, Janssen has insisted that the slimmed-down unit will continue operating. The company has previously declined to confirm layoffs associated with the move.

Work on assets aimed at dengue, tuberculosis and leprosy are continuing under Janssen's global health portfolio. Other assets being wound down or moved, such as Janssen's COVID-19 and Ebola vaccines, remain shown in the infectious disease and vaccine pipeline on the company's website. 

"We will maintain commitments to the safety and well-being of participants currently enrolled in our IDV clinical trials," the spokesperson said. 

The goalposts have shifted on the unit over the course of the year as troubling signs emerged in January with a leaked townhall meeting obtained by Fierce Pharma. Penny Heaton, M.D., who took charge of the merged unit earlier this year, said at the January meeting that a vaccine for staphylococcus aureus was set to enter the clinic in early 2024. That’s now nowhere to be found in Janssen’s pipeline. Heaton also said at the time that the team would advance a self-amplifying messenger RNA vaccine for respiratory diseases, which at the time was in the discovery stage.

“The thing that we’re stopping is the [multi-respiratory] vaccine on the protein platform, we’re instead moving to progressing on the RNA platform,” Heaton said in the meeting. 

On the infectious disease side, Janssen planned to continue work on pre-exposure prophylaxis treatments for human rhinovirus, RSV, COVID and flu, the majority of which were in the discovery stage. At the meeting, employees were also informed that layoffs would be occuring across global operations in the ID&V unit. 

One of the prophylaxis meds that Janssen had originally expected to continue work on, JNJ-0953, was part of a collaboration with Cidara Therapeutics and was axed from Janssen’s latest pipeline update. The smaller biotech said in late July that it was informed that Janssen would discontinue internal development and Cidara is now waiting to find out whether the asset will be handed back to them or signed over to a different pharmaceutical company. It's a similar position that Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals has found itself in regarding a hepatitis B treatment that Janssen had licensed. 

The infectious disease unit had a difficult second quarter as the only therapeutic area to report double-digit revenue losses compared to the same period in 2022. That was mainly fueled by an almost 50% drop in revenue from the COVID vaccine. The unit still brought in more than $1.1 billion in revenue for the quarter, more than the pulmonary hypertension division or cardiovascular, metabolic and other division, respectively. 

As J&J moves on from the ID&V work, the spokesperson said the company will focus on oncology, immunology, neuroscience, cardiovascular diseases, pulmonary hypertension and retinal disorders, where the "pipeline is poised to have the greatest impact for patients."

Heaton is expected to remain in her role of global therapeutic area head for infectious disease and vaccines at Janssen, a spokesperson confirmed.