(Bloomberg) – American biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong is backing a candidate vaccine against COVID-19 that he believes has potential as a universal booster for other vaccines against the pandemic.
ImmunityBio Inc., of which the 68-year-old billionaire owns about 13%, is developing a vaccine called hAd5 that aims to specifically activate T cells that scientists say are a key part of the immune response against COVID. This quarter, the South African-born biotech mogul will begin trials in the country, the scene of what he calls a Covid-19 “firestorm” as the delta variant fuels a third wave of infections.
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Of which the 68-year-old man has about 13%, he is developing a vaccine called hAd5 that aims to specifically activate T cells that, according to scientists, are a key part of the immune response against covid. This quarter, the South African-born biotech mogul will begin trials in the country, the scene of what he calls a covid-19 “firestorm” as the delta variant drives a third wave of infections.
Most vaccines work to elicit immune proteins called antibodies that block the spike protein that the coronavirus uses to enter cells. San Diego-based ImmunityBio is trying to create anti-spike T cells and another viral protein, called a nucleocapsid, Soon-Shiong said. This could make it ideal for use as a booster for different types of vaccines, he explained during an interview.
“The concern we’ve had with antibody-only vaccines is that it won’t be enough,” Soon-Shiong said. “You really need a combination of an antibody and a T-cell-based vaccine.”
Ravaged by the highly communicable delta variant, South Africa has been battling the worst wave of covid. While vaccination has recently accelerated, the continent remains the least vaccinated in the world, with only 1.4% of its 1.2 billion people fully immunized. This raises fears of the emergence of new, deadlier coronavirus variants that could undermine the effectiveness of current vaccines.
The ImmunityBio study is the first to attempt to increase levels of both antibodies and T cells against the nucleocapsid, part of the core of the virus. The company’s Sisonke universal T-cell booster trial in South Africa will include some of the 485,000 healthcare workers who have already received Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose covid vaccine. The results of vaccination with the ImmunityBio vaccine will be compared with those of people who only received the J&J vaccine, Soon-Shiong said. The company also plans to conduct studies in the United States.