The US government has cut deals with Johnson & Johnson and Moderna Inc and said it is in talks with at least two other companies to prepare them to produce massive quantities of coronavirus vaccines even before safe and effective ones become available.
There are currently no approved treatments or vaccines specifically for COVID-19, the respiratory disease that has killed more than 35,000 people and infected over 745,000 globally in just a few months.
BARDA ultimately plans to support five or six experimental vaccine candidates, with the hopes of having two or three successful ones, BARDA director Rick Bright said in a phone interview.
Experts have estimated it could be 12 to 18 months before a safe and effective vaccine wins regulatory approval.
"Government and industry is working in unprecedented ways," Bright said. The hope is to work "as quickly as possible and manufacture enough of it for us and the rest of the world in a very short timeframe."
The agency plans to take over manufacturing of Moderna's vaccine candidate to enable the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech to focus on testing it in larger trials.
BARDA hopes to speed up the back end of the vaccine manufacturing process, which involves ensuring that they are made and packaged according to standards set by the US Food and Drug Administration.
'A lot of risk involved'
J&J has a manufacturing plant in the Netherlands that can make up to 300 million doses of vaccine, Stoffels said, but that "absolutely will not be sufficient for the world."
The company is also scouting for manufacturing plants in other parts of Europe and Asia capable of making the type of vaccine the company is working on.
Stoffels said J&J's vaccine will be based on the same technology used to make its Ebola vaccine, which has been widely used in people. The company believes it will prove safe. In lab studies, it has produced strong neutralizing antibodies to the virus - the type needed to make a successful vaccine.
In addition to the investments in J&J and Moderna, Bright said his agency is in talks with at least two other large vaccine makers but declined to make them public.
BARDA is interested in working with a broad range of vaccine technologies and with companies that have proven track records, Bright said.
"There's a lot of risk involved in making a new vaccine, a lot of risk in going quickly," Bright said. "Wherever possible, we need to understand and mitigate that risk."