Vaxart cans oral COVID-19 vaccine plans, lays off 27% of staff to go all in on norovirus program

Vaxart is pulling back from its oral COVID-19 vaccine program. Rather than pump more money into the pandemic project, the oral recombinant vaccine specialist will prioritize its norovirus prospect, extending its cash runway and laying off 27% of its staff in the process. 

San Francisco-based Vaxart landed on the Nasdaq in 2017 in the wake of the publication of phase 2 data on its oral influenza vaccine candidate. The biotech still lists the influenza tablet in its pipeline—and teamed up with Johnson & Johnson to develop an universal flu vaccine in 2019—but, in recent years, its internal focus has shifted to two indications: COVID-19 and norovirus. 

With its bank balance slipping below $100 million, Vaxart has decided it can only pursue one of the two indications. The biotech is continuing preclinical development of novel COVID-19 vaccine constructs in the belief it may be able to create a tablet that provides protection against current and future variants of SARS-CoV-2 and related viruses such as SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV. But it is postponing plans to run trials of its COVID-19 candidates, including a human challenge study that was scheduled to start this year.

“Norovirus is less challenging for a company like Vaxart to develop a solution against,” Vaxart CEO Andrei Floroiu said on a call with investors. “[In COVID], we decided to play to the strength suggested by our clinical data and focus on addressing pandemic preparedness by developing a pan-betacoronavirus vaccine. One of the notable weaknesses of injectable COVID-19 vaccines has been their relatively narrow strain-specific activity, while cross-reactivity has been a feature of our mucosal oral feel vaccine.”

The R&D rethink will reduce Vaxart’s head count by 27%. At the end of last year, the biotech employed 164 people plus 13 full-time contractors. Most, 137, of the employees worked in R&D. With COVID-19 on the back burner, Vaxart no longer has a need for all of those employees. The head count reduction and pipeline prioritization will extend the company’s cash runway into the second quarter of next year.

Vaxart’s cash runway stretches beyond the delivery of data on the bivalent norovirus candidate that now carries the hopes of the company. The remaining R&D team is expanding a phase 2 challenge study of the candidate to improve the chances of identifying a correlation between the immune responses and a reduction in risk of norovirus infection or acute gastroenteritis. Top-line efficacy results are due in the third quarter, shortly after the results of a midphase dose-ranging study.