Pfizer pays BioNTech $120M upfront to form mRNA flu vaccine pact

Pfizer has struck a $425 million deal to work with BioNTech on the development of mRNA influenza vaccines. The Big Pharma is providing $120 million in upfront and near-term payments to enter into the R&D collaboration.

Germany’s BioNTech has established itself at the forefront of the mRNA field, leading to deals with Eli Lilly, Genentech and Sanofi and a $270 million series A. Many of the collaborations, plus BioNTech’s internal programs, are using mRNA to activate the immune system against tumors. But the approach could also yield prophylactic vaccines that are more potent and easier to make than existing shots.

The vaccines will deliver RNA encoding for an antigen. Once the antigen is produced, it induces T cell responses that prime the immune system to spot the protein. The approach could cut the time it takes to develop and manufacture vaccines in response to emerging pandemic threats, and induce protection against multiple proteins.

BioNTech has talked up the idea for several years but has been occupied by its oncology programs. Now, Pfizer is stepping up to get the project motoring forward.

“mRNA vaccines offer a novel approach to code for any protein or multiple proteins, and the potential to manufacture higher potency flu vaccines more rapidly and at a lower cost than contemporary flu vaccines,” Kathrin Jansen, head of Pfizer’s vaccine R&D unit, said in a statement.

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The agreement sees Pfizer pay $120 million in upfront, equity and near-term research payments. Further down the line, Pfizer could hand over up to $305 million in development, regulatory and commercial milestones, although as ever, caveats abound as to whether this will be met.

BioNTech and Pfizer will collaboratively take the mRNA vaccines through the early R&D steps. Once a first-in-human study is complete, Pfizer will take sole responsibility for advancing the vaccines through the rest of clinical development. 

The deal establishes Pfizer at the forefront of efforts to create mRNA flu vaccines but it is far from the only company interested in using the technology to prevent infectious diseases. Moderna has two influenza vaccines in its clinical pipeline and has generated early-phase data suggesting the mRNA concept works.