Pfizer’s Next Potential Breakthrough Vaccine Could Target The Flu

Every year, the flu vaccine saves many lives. But the vaccine, in a good year, is 60 percent effective. Given the importance of an effective flu vaccine, researchers are in hot pursuit of a new kind of shot.1

Enter mRNA technology, which Pfizer and its Germany-based partner BioNTech used to create and develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine with historic speed. Vaccines are one of Pfizer’s six key therapeutic areas and, in 2020, the company provided vaccines that were used to immunize more than 86 million people.2

Phil Dormitzer, Pfizer’s head of viral vaccine research and development said of mRNA “It’s technology that has the potential to greatly improve influenza vaccination… If successful, an mRNA-based vaccine could supplant a lot of the way we do things now.”

A different flu vaccine

If a safe and effective mRNA vaccine for flu is successfully developed by Pfizer and approved by regulatory authorities, it has the potential to reduce uncertainty during some flu seasons by speeding up the manufacturing process, thereby increasing the chances that the strain or strains encoded in that season’s vaccine better match what is then circulating, which could potentially improve vaccine effectiveness.

Conventional flu vaccine manufacturing demands that scientists grow live viruses before inactivating and processing them into vaccines. It’s a process that requires companies to start six months before the flu season. They rely on health authorities to help them match the formulation to the dominant strain.3

And as the vaccine is grown in chicken eggs or mammalian cells, it sometimes mutates and reduces vaccine effectiveness.

A new vaccine candidate for research in a shorter time

The new mRNA approach might let scientists build a potential vaccine candidate at research scale in as little as eight days.

With this new approach, and subject to regulatory approval, Pfizer could be in a position to monitor the virus strains circulating and potentially generate a vaccine candidate out of synthetic RNA closer to the start of flu season. Leveraging mRNA technology may lead to vaccines that are more closely matched to the strains that are circulating in any particular season.

“We hope to be in a position that, in the event that the strain(s) included in any vaccine do not match the strain(s) that are actually circulating, to be able to rapidly produce a new vaccine to specifically address the strain causing disease,” Dr. Dormitzer said of the potential for a mRNA flu vaccine.

Human trials to begin

Pfizer entered into a multi‐year research and development (R&D) collaboration with BioNTech to work on flu vaccines in 2018. In late September 2021, the first participants were dosed in a Phase 1 clinical trial to evaluate the safety, tolerability, and immunogenicity of a single dose quadrivalent mRNA vaccine against the flu in healthy adults aged 65-85.

Beyond vaccines

Pfizer is also exploring potential applications for mRNA technology in rare diseases and cancer.

“Our strategy to advance and unlock the full potential of mRNA is focused in three core areas,” said Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chairman and CEO. “We’re strengthening the core COVID-19 vaccine franchise, growing an infectious disease vaccine pipeline, and exploring therapeutic areas, like rare disease and oncology, with the strongest potential.”4

[1] New RNA Technology Could Get The Flu Vaccine Right, Every Year. Available here.
[2] Breakthroughs That Change Patients Lives. Proxy Statement for 2021 Annual Meeting of Shareholders. Available here.
[3] How RNA Technology Could Revolutionize Vaccine Production. Available here.
[4] Q2 2021 Pfizer Inc. Earnings Call. Available here.

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