VBI Vaccines pares down pipeline and staff to focus on hepatitis B programs

With an eye towards someday developing a “functional cure” for hepatitis B, VBI Vaccines is triaging the rest of its programs and sending 30-35% of staff out the door.

The company will zero in on approved hepatitis B vaccine PreHevbrio and another candidate called VBI-2601, according to a Tuesday press release. VBI is positioning VBI-2601 as an immunotherapeutic that can be part of a functional cure regimen for patients with chronic hepatitis B.

But in order to get there, executives had to make some tough calls, which “were not taken lightly,” CEO Jeff Baxter said in the press release. VBI will reduce headcount by 30-35% beginning this month and ending in June. This will help lower operating expenses by 30-35% in the second half when compared to the same period a year ago.

VBI will also say goodbye to Chief Financial Officer and Head of Business Development Christopher McNulty. Nell Beattie, who had been serving as chief business officer, replaces McNulty.

And finally, VBI will execute a reverse stock split to regain compliance with Nasdaq's listing requirements. The split will be effective April 12, converting every 30 shares of VBI into one issued an outstanding common share.

As for what programs are on the chopping block, VBI has prophylactic vaccine programs for cytomegalovirus, COVID-19, zika and other coronaviruses. On the therapeutic side the company also has early-stage programs for glioblastoma and other CMV+ tumors. VBI did not return a request for comment as of publication on future plans for the remaining pipeline.

VBI was one of the many biotechs that jumped on the bandwagon to develop vaccines and therapeutics to combat the coronavirus. The company received $33 million from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations in May 2021 to prepare for new and emerging variants of the virus that causes COVID-19. With the new pipeline reprioritization, it seems VBI is following in the footsteps of other companies that are wrapping up work now that the immediate emergency of the pandemic has subsided.

Just yesterday, Pardes Biosciences announced the end of the development of a COVID-19 antiviral after a phase 2 failure. That company was launched in 2020 in direct response to the pandemic.

But luckily for VBI, PreHevbrio was approved in December 2021 providing at least one product for the biotech to rely on as the pipeline is shuffled. CEO Baxter pointed out that use of the shot is on the rise in the U.S. and that the new hepatitis B candidate has already produced positive interim phase 2 data.