Pfizer's top scientist tells us the pharma giant is already thinking about a new version of its coronavirus vaccine for 2021 that can overcome one of its biggest limitations

  • The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is already thinking about a second-generation coronavirus vaccine, shortly after saying the current version succeeded in a late-stage study.
  • Pfizer's vaccine needs to be stored frozen at minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit), an unusual requirement for vaccines.
  • While the $200 billion pharma is already working out the supply-chain challenges, Pfizer's top scientist told Business Insider a future version — which could come in 2021 — may need just standard refrigeration.
  • "We think we could already in 2021 develop a powder form that could be just for refrigeration," Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer's chief scientific officer, told Business Insider on November 9. "That would be one simplification."
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Pfizer is already working on a new coronavirus vaccine that could get around its biggest problem of needing to be kept in extremely cold temperatures, Business Insider has learned.

"We are thinking about a few possibilities for next-generation vaccines," Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer's chief scientific officer, told Business Insider in a November 9 video interview. "For the COVID-19 disease, I think we'll roll out next year a vaccine in powder format."

A powder version would not require the burdensome cold-chain storage that's a key limitation of Pfizer's current candidate, which needs to be stored frozen at minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit).

While the US and other developed countries can likely build up the infrastructure to deliver a frozen vaccine, it would be increasingly difficult to immunize people in poorer parts of the world. And even in the US, many state officials aren't sure how well they'll be able to deal with storage and transport requirements.

Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine candidate was 95% effective in protecting people from COVID-19, according to final study results released Wednesday. The data has not yet been published in a medical journal, and regulators still need to review the results to allow widespread use.

Read more: How the pharma giant Pfizer teamed up with a little-known biotech to develop an effective coronavirus vaccine in record time

Pfizer's initial vaccine requires deep-freezing temperatures

Pfizer's operations and logistics teams have been preparing for this challenge for the past few months. The company will ship the vaccine by air and land using dry ice, along with reusable GPS temperature-monitoring devices, executives said in a September presentation.

Even still, many hospital systems lack the storage facilities to keep the vaccine cold enough, including some of the most reputable US hospitals, such as the Rochester, Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic, Reuters reported.

"We're a major medical center and we don't have storage capacity like this," Dr. Gregory Poland, a Mayo Clinic virologist, told Reuters. "That will be true for everybody. This is a logistical obstacle."

Morgan Stanley analysts called concerns about the temperature requirement "overblown" in a November 19 note to investors.  They noted the shot can be stored for five days at regular refrigerator temperatures, "so ultra-low temperature freezers would probably not be needed at most administration sites during the pandemic."

The upstart Massachusetts biotech Moderna has also announced its vaccine candidate was 94.5% effective at preventing COVID-19 in its late-stage study. Like Pfizer, Moderna has not published data in a medical journal. 

Moderna's shot could prove to be easier to distribute, as the company says the vaccine is stable for a month at typical fridge temperatures (36 degrees Fahrenheit to 46 degrees Fahrenheit).

A powder vaccine could make it easier to distribute

Even as the vaccine has yet to be approved, or even apply for regulatory approval, Pfizer's chief scientist highlighted the potential for a second-generation version that could have less-onerous temperature requirements.

A powder version could come next year that wouldn't need supercold storage, Dolsten said, though he didn't specify at which temperature it would need to be stored at. 

"We think we could already in 2021 develop a powder form that could be just for refrigeration," he said. "That would be one simplification."

Read more: Why a top infectious-disease expert says it's too soon to celebrate Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine

Pfizer worked with the German biotech BioNTech to develop its coronavirus vaccine using a new technological platform called messenger RNA. Dolsten predicted this wouldn't be the duo's last mRNA work on infectious-disease vaccines, with the potential looming for future epidemic scares. 

"I don't think this is the end of the coronavirus invasion," he said. "There will likely be other coronaviruses as we have seen starting in 2003 with SARS, followed by MERS and now COVID-19."

This story has been updated to include final study results from Pfizer's vaccine trial, as well as findings from Moderna. The original version was published on November 10. 

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