Pfizer to make foray into gene editing, expand mRNA tech in 2022

·Senior Reporter
·3 min read

Pfizer (PFE) may be the most recognized COVID-19 vaccine brand, but that's due in part to its collaboration with BioNTech (BNTX). It's why the companies recently announced they're expanding their partnership to create more mRNA vaccines.

But that isn't all Pfizer is up to for 2022. The company also announced a deal with Codex DNA to improve production of its vaccines, and a $1.3 billion deal with gene-editing biotech Beam Therapeutics (BEAM), as presented at the JPMorgan annual health care conference Monday.

"We truly believe that the mRNA technology is very powerful. It's not the holy grail, but it is very powerful," Bourla said.

And with the experience of scaling up production to create billions of COVID-19 doses on a new global platform throughout the pandemic, the pharma giant says it's well-positioned to maintain its lead in the space.

"We are just scratching the surface, and we are well-positioned to put together capabilities ourselves to produce medicines that the world needs," Bourla said.

That includes creating a South Africa hub for mRNA production, via a partnership with the Biovac Institute, which should come to fruition this year.

But beyond the mRNA platform, Pfizer also has its focus on newer technology such as gene editing, Bourla said.

The announcements come as Pfizer faces loss of exclusivity on several of its best-selling drugs in 2025 and beyond, including Xeljanz, Eliquis, Ibrance and Xtandi. That concern continued to pressure the company's stock, even as it shot to the top in global covid vaccine demand.

"I think we are having very good projections from our internal pipeline, way better than the Street thinks," Bourla said at JPM on Monday.

In pursuing the Beam Therapeutics partnership, Bourla is tapping into a fast-growing segment of therapies. Gene editing is making waves in biotech, and the most recent example appeared Monday, with a modified pig's heart transplanted into a human.

The deal with Codex plays a key role in both this and the mRNA ventures, Bourla said. It will significantly cut down the time it takes to synthesize DNA - a key ingredient for any mRNA project. For example, the current vaccine takes one month to make, with one-third of that time dedicated to building the DNA template.

Bourla, who took the helm of the company just a year before the pandemic, is continuing his pursuit of a more robust pipeline through partnerships, mergers and acquisitions. When spinning off UpJohn in 2019, Bourla said the company was pivoting away from generics and would become a tighter, more focused innovative company.

But Bourla made it clear at JPM that he isn't just looking for big deals.

"I'm agnostic to size. I don't want to do a deal that the only thing (it offers) is value for cost synergies. So...we would spend three years closing research centers, and closing manufacturing sites, justify the premium we paid to shareholders of the other company. That I don't want to do," he said.

Bourla added he is not a fan of cost-cutting or financial engineering.

The pandemic, and the risky bet on a new vaccine technology, also showed as much in how Bourla poured resources into the untested vaccine technology. But only recently has Pfizer enjoyed a boost in the markets as a result of the vaccine's success. What did it take to create the world's most popular vaccine?

"It was the fact that the focus was relentless, the resources were without limitations, and the bureaucracy was cut off completely — having meetings of four or five layers of management all together," Bourla said at JPM.

While that cannot be mimicked for every product in the future, the mentality and the commitment of resources was key.

"Pfizer, through this pandemic experience, was able to accumulate the experience of a decade into one year," he said. "It's very difficult for anyone to repeat that."

Follow Anjalee on Twitter @AnjKhem

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