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US and J&J commit $1b to coronavirus vaccine codeveloped by Beth Israel

Clinical trials are set to start by September, and if all goes well, it could be ready for emergency use early next year

“We need multiple vaccine programs to move forward because we don’t know which vaccine will be the safest, most effective and most deployable,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, head of Beth Israel's Center for Virology and Vaccine Research.
“We need multiple vaccine programs to move forward because we don’t know which vaccine will be the safest, most effective and most deployable,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, head of Beth Israel's Center for Virology and Vaccine Research.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The federal government and Johnson & Johnson said Monday that they are investing more than $1 billion in a potential vaccine against the coronavirus, a big bet on a substance developed partly by a laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Johnson & Johnson, which is bankrolling the effort with the government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, said it expects to begin clinical trials of the leading vaccine candidate by September. The first batches of COVID-19 vaccine could be available for a request to the government for emergency use early next year, if it proves safe and effective, the company said.

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That’s behind the projected timeline of Cambridge-based Moderna, which helped develop a messenger RNA-based vaccine that healthy volunteers began receiving March 16 in an early-stage clinical trial in Seattle. Moderna has said that its vaccine might be available for health care professionals in the fall but wouldn’t be commercially available for at least 12 months to 18 months.

Still, Dr. Dan Barouch, head of Beth Israel’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, said the commitment of more than $1 billion to his lab’s collaboration with Janssen Pharmaceutical Cos., the drug-making arm of New Brunswick, N.J.-based Johnson & Johnson, was “really important.”

“We need multiple vaccine programs to move forward because we don’t know which vaccine will be the safest, most effective and most deployable,” said Barouch, who has emphasized that he believes a vaccine might be needed to end the pandemic.

Even though the potential vaccine codeveloped by Barouch’s lab and Janssen could be six months from entering clinical trials, Janssen is ramping up its manufacturing capabilities. Johnson & Johnson has pledged to produce a billion doses, the company said.

“The world is facing an urgent public health crisis and we are committed to doing our part to make a COVID-19 vaccine available and affordable globally as quickly as possible," said Alex Gorsky, chief executive of Johnson & Johnson.

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Beth Israel and Janssen have collaborated for more than a decade on vaccine programs for other illnesses, including Zika virus disease and HIV. They signed an agreement to work together on coronavirus on Jan. 31, Barouch said, just three weeks after Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of the virus and posted it online. Financial terms haven’t been disclosed.

The company previously said that it had a plant in Leiden, Netherlands, prepared to manufacture 300 million doses a year in the first deployment of the vaccine. The firm didn’t specify where it would make the other 700 million doses.

Barouch’s lab and Janssen are using a common-cold virus to deliver a coronavirus antigen into cells to stimulate the immune system. Janssen has used the same approach to make 2 million doses of a vaccine for Ebola that has yet to be licensed but has been provided to about 40,000 people in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Barouch’s lab is already testing multiple versions of the coronavirus vaccine on mice, ferrets, and rhesus monkeys exposed to the pathogen at a research facility working under contract in the Washington, D.C., area, Barouch said.

Janssen and Beth Israel have designated one of the versions as the lead vaccine candidate for their collaboration and two others as backup candidates.

BARDA, which is helping to bankroll the effort, is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency develops countermeasures against bioterrorism and other threats, including chemical, nuclear, and radiological attacks, as well as pandemics.

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There’s no approved vaccine for COVID-19, but the World Health Organization lists more than 40 vaccine candidates around the globe. Like Moderna, the German biotech CureVac, with about 20 employees in Boston, is also working on a potential messenger RNA vaccine.

Typically,. vaccine development involves multiple research stages that last five to seven years before a substance is even considered for approval, Johnson & Johnson said.

Johnson & Johnson stock ended the day at $133.01, up 8 percent.



Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com