A Long Island biotech startup is working to produce potential coronavirus vaccines that could be ready for safety testing on human volunteers by May, an executive said Friday.
The Farmingdale company, Codagenix Inc., uses a novel algorithmic system that allows it to rapidly generate vaccine candidates, said Steffen Mueller, the company’s president and chief science officer.
Codagenix’s funders include Topspin Partners, a Roslyn venture capital firm. Topspin’s backers include James Simons, the founder of East Setauket hedge fund Renaissance Technologies and the 21st richest person in the United States, according to Forbes.
Traditional vaccines such as those for measles and mumps are produced by a “trial and error” method using live viruses that are weakened, Mueller said. That method runs into delays because dosages are relatively high, requiring companies to grow large amounts of a virus.
Under Codagenix’s approach, the genetic code of the virus — which normally would let it commandeer its cellular host — is altered.
That altered code prevents the virus from being able to multiply.
“Viruses can’t get out from under that,” Mueller said. “I think we’re the only ones in the world making live, attenuated vaccines” against the novel coronavirus.
Bettie Steinberg, provost at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health, said limited knowledge about the workings of the virus will make it challenging to assess the efficacy of a vaccine.
“We don’t really know the biology of this infection,” she said. “We know how many people died and how many people we’re positive got the infection, but we don’t know how many people weren’t tested because they had mild symptoms.”
Steinberg said it could take a year or two before a vaccine’s effectiveness can be assessed.
Mueller said that to develop vaccine candidates, Codagenix did not require access to the coronavirus, but simply access to its genetic code, which was posted online by officials in China, where the outbreak began.
He said the company, a startup with 11 employees, began work on the coronavirus four weeks ago. “If all goes well, we might have some candidates in the next couple of weeks. The next step would be clinical testing.”
Mueller said the company will need access to a laboratory certified to handle a virus with a biosafety level in line with the coronavirus, possibly at Stony Brook University.
The company already has lined up a possible production partner, the Serum Institute of India, one of the world’s largest vaccine producers, Mueller said.
In February, the University of Nebraska Medical Center began the first U.S. clinical trial of an antiviral medicine for patients who already have contracted the coronavirus.
Codagenix is racing against numerous large pharmaceutical companies to make a coronavirus vaccine, including Moderna Inc., which on Monday announced it had shipped a vaccine to U.S. government researchers for human clinical trial as early as April.
Moderna, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is working on a vaccine technology that seeks to trigger an immune response by introducing genetic material, called messenger RNA, into the patient.
To date there is no proven treatment or vaccine for the virus.
As of midday Friday, there were 83,867 coronavirus cases worldwide, according to a Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering dashboard, 2,867 deaths and 36,686 people who recovered after contracting the disease.
“It looks like this will go pandemic,” Mueller said.
The outbreak originated in Wuhan, China, in December.
Steinberg said reaction to the coronavirus should be measured. Since the coronavirus outbreak was recognized, more people have died from influenza, she said.
In January, Codagenix landed a $20 million venture capital round led by Adjuvant Capital with participation by Euclidean Capital and Topspin.