Meline: If you look at the investment thesis, we were taking investing risks in advance of when you traditionally would. Normally when you develop a product like this, you go through a series of trials and take on incremental investment and scientific risks as you go along. In this case, because of the urgency of the pandemic situation, we did these steps in parallel. On the scientific side, it was in close cooperation with the FDA in the U.S. and with health agencies around the world, because you’re monitoring safety and can’t compromise in any way.
At the same time, we were investing in lining up the commercial supply, and started producing product as early as summer 2020. If it was not approved and launched, we would have had a loss on those investments. Fortunately, the product came through with efficacy rates of 94%, which is among the best for vaccines that we’ve seen in history. We were able to launch the product successfully and ramp up quickly because we’d taken the risks to invest.
Kroszner: Some of my Booth colleagues published a paper on how to accelerate vaccine availability through market forces for a social purpose and have been involved with COVAX, the global initiative to get vaccines to the world’s more vulnerable populations in emerging markets. What is your take on it?
Meline: The questions of access, equity, and equitable distribution are important. We’ve continued to have a dialogue with COVAX around supply and we’re interested in that mechanism. As a startup company, we do not have existing commercial infrastructure, including in the United States, Western Europe, or Japan, let alone in the developing markets around the world. We are interested in how we can provide access to our product to potentially all citizens and we recognize our responsibility to do this. COVAX is clearly a mechanism by which we can access areas of the world that otherwise would be inaccessible to us.
Recently, we’ve seen some of the countries that are COVAX participants come to us directly. For example, within the past few weeks, we announced contracts with the Philippines and Colombia. Mutations arise from infected people who haven’t been vaccinated, so until you have broad dissemination of vaccines, you’ll continue to see active evolution of the virus. So, there are some strong reasons to broaden access from a public-health perspective.
Kroszner: Will vaccines be open to private market participants as the pandemic enters its next stage?
Meline: Until now, our customers have been governments and health authorities around the world. We have two supply chains that we’ve set up: One is U.S.-based production for distribution within the U.S. borders. The other was set up in collaboration with our Swiss-based manufacturing partner, Lonza, to fill our international contracts. As we get past the pandemic phase to a more stable, endemic phase, you will likely see a transition to a private market, at least in some countries. It’s reasonable to expect that this process will eventually be similar to what you see with vaccines for other diseases.