Novo Nordisk Foundation sets up new vaccine initiative for respiratory diseases with $260M

The Novo Nordisk Foundation is dedicating up to $260 million to create new or improved vaccines for serious respiratory diseases, such as tuberculosis (TB) and the flu.  

The initiative, developed with the University of Copenhagen, is the first global vaccines initiative to solely focus on how to produce immunity in the airway itself as a way to prevent airborne disease infection, according to a Dec. 18 release.

Initial research efforts at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Initiative for Vaccines and Immunity (NIVI) will focus on candidates for TB, the flu and Group A Streptococcus. Currently, the only available TB vaccine doesn’t prevent lung disease in adolescents and adults, while flu shots can only provide short-term protection. Meanwhile, there is currently no licensed vaccine for GAS.

If successful, the Novo Nordisk Foundation believes the new initiative could also help slow the spread of antimicrobial resistance, a crisis driven in part by the overuse or misuse of antibiotics for airway infections.   

Novo Nordisk Foundation CEO Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, Ph.D., sees great potential for NIVI beyond just its stomping grounds of Denmark, with plans to expand its reach worldwide and help stop the millions of global deaths tied to respiratory deaths that occur every year.  

NIVI is made up of two entities: a research arm dubbed the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Vaccines and Immunity (NCVI) and a limited liability company called the Novo Nordisk Foundation Vaccine Accelerator (NVAC P/S). The latter will help the research-driven NCVI by licensing and developing vaccine tech, prepping injection formulations and coordinating the clinical testing of vaccine candidates. Any revenue made by NVAC will be reinvested back into NIVI.

The initiative will lean heavily on collaboration with public and private partnerships, with a key association to the Denmark’s Statens Serum Institut already set up.

NCVI and NVAC will both be led by the NIVI executive director/CEO, a hire that is slated to be announced in 2024. Previous development of NIVI has been led by vaccinologist and Senior Vice President of Infectious Diseases at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Peter Lawætz Andersen, Ph.D.

The foundation is part of a wide-ranging Novo network. Independent from Wegovy-maker Novo Nordisk, the Novo Nordisk Foundation brought in over $1 billion worth of philanthropic grants and investments last year alone, a figure the behometh expects to almost double by the end of the decade.

Since moving to the foundation in 2021, CEO Thomsen has overseen a slew of clinically focused initiatives. They include funding a major international center for stem cell medicine research as well as the launch of the Novo Nordisk Foundation Institute for Vaccines and Immunity, which Thomsen explains is tasked with “actually finding vaccines and taking them into the clinic.”

Thomsen told Fierce Biotech this fall that his self-appointed mission when joining the foundation was to draw together the organization’s disparate research work and make it “more mission-driven, more strategic.” The philanthropic nature of the foundation means that whether it’s stem cell therapies or vaccines, the goal is to do good rather than worry about turning a profit.

The money the foundation uses doesn’t come directly from Novo Nordisk but via another entity called Novo Holdings. As well as being the controlling shareholder of the Big Pharma, the fund manager’s role is to take the revenues from Novo Nordisk and make that money go further.

The influx of cash from GLP-1 agonist semaglutide—later branded Ozempic—may mean that the fund manager can “scale up” the amount of money available for biotech investments “a little bit more,” Novo Holdings CEO Kasim Kutay told Fierce biotech earlier this year.