Head of Janssen’s vaccines arm on the journey to 1bn vaccine doses

6 Nov 2020

Dr Johan Van Hoof speaking at Future Human 2020. Image: Connor McKenna © Siliconrepublic.com

Future Human attendees got to hear from Dr Johan Van Hoof who heads up Janssen’s vaccines arm at Johnson & Johnson, where he presented an update on the organisation’s Covid vaccine programme.

Dr Johan Van Hoof is the global head of infectious diseases and vaccines at Janssen. Speaking at Future Human, Van Hoof was quick to emphasise that he was talking about an R&D project, and that in no way did he want to suggest that this vaccine candidate has already proven efficacy in humans.

“We will need to await the outcome of the data later in the year or early next year before we know with certainty whether this vaccine is efficacious,” he reminded attendees.

He did however provide an overview of progress on the Covid vaccine for the virus that is currently raging throughout the world, with more than 41m cases reported worldwide – considered a significant underestimate – and more than 1m deaths.

He explained that Covid-19 is caused by what is now called the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is named after the first SARS virus that was identified back in the beginning of this century. “There’s a lot of similarity between that virus and the current virus and that’s also why we are able to leverage lessons learned from that experience,” said Van Hoof.

“The virus uses its spike protein to attach itself to the ACE2 receptor in the human cells, specifically in the lower respiratory tract. And we know that if you induce immune responses, neutralising antibodies against the spike protein, at least for the first SARS virus in animal models, you could protect against infection, you can neutralise the virus.

“The hypothesis is that for the current virus if you induce such neutralising antibodies and cell-mediated immunity, you will have the same result,” he continued. “At the same time, we also know from the lessons from SARS-1 that you have to induce what are called Th1 responses. You should avoid Th2 responses and this is to avoid the phenomenon of enhanced disease.”

Van Hoof explained that to date, approximately 100,000 people have been vaccinated under the Janssen R&D programmes and have been studied in clinical trials. “Throughout those studies, we have seen a very acceptable tolerability profile and we have not observed any significant safety signal. We also have observed very clear Th1 responses, which is very good to reduce the risk of enhanced respiratory disease,” he said.

“And it’s a platform that has been fully upscaled now to 1,000 litres using a manufacturing cell line that can be grown at very high cell density and thus promising very high yields and enabling us to produce a big amount of quantities in the relatively short term. We also see that this vector has favourable thermostability at two to eight degrees, which allows distribution using the conventional vaccine distribution channels.”

Collaboration has been crucial, said Van Hoof, for such an undertaking. “We are collaborating with many partners. We have announced early this year already that we are working with BARDA in co-funding this project. We are also working together with academic centres and with contract research organisations to help us in expanding our supply chain. And we are clearly also very closely interacting with many governments and health authorities worldwide.”

It will be vital to ensure the vaccine is available in large amounts once efficacy is demonstrated, he added. Pointing to the corporation’s commitment to invest at risk in large-scale manufacturing earlier this year. “Our ambition is to make sure that we have at least 1bn doses of a vaccine available by the end of 2021 to be able to address the enormous needs that will be there worldwide.”

Van Hoof also emphasised that speed could not supplant safety when it comes to developing the vaccine. “It is in that context that our CEO together with CEOs from other pharmaceutical companies made the pledge to make sure that we will only file this vaccine when we are convinced that we have sufficient robust data to support the safety and effectiveness, and we will put the safety of the communities we want to vaccinate at the centre of our activities.”

Ann O’Dea is the CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic and the founder of Future Human