Novartis will start making coronavirus vaccine this month

Swiss drugmaker Novartis will start producing a genetic coronavirus vaccine this month under a deal with Massachusetts researchers.

AveXis, Novartis’s gene-therapy arm, agreed to manufacture the vaccine being developed by Massachusetts Eye and Ear and Massachusetts General Hospital. Production will start in time for clinical trials that are scheduled to begin in the second half of this year, according to a Thursday announcement.

Researchers cast AveXis as a strong partner because it already has more than 1 million square feet of manufacturing capacity as the producer of the gene therapy Zolgensma, one of just two drugs of its kind available in the US.

“We are uniquely poised to help the team move quickly toward this accelerated effort,” AveXis president Dave Lennon said in a statement.

The agreement puts Novartis into the global race for a COVID-19 vaccine that has already attracted pharmaceutical and biotech firms such as AstraZeneca, Moderna, Merck and Novavax. Clinical evaluations have started for 10 potential vaccines and more than 100 others are in pre-clinical stages, according to the World Health Organization.

The Massachusetts vaccine uses a vector of an adeno-associated virus, or AAV — a kind of virus that does not cause disease — to deliver genetic code to produce “protein fragments” of the new coronavirus and trigger an immune response, according to researchers.

The AveXis drug Zolgensma — which made headlines as the world’s most expensive drug with its $2.1 million price tag — also uses an AAV vector.

“By partnering with an industry leader in AveXis that already produces AAV gene therapy products at large scales, we are more on track than ever to reaching our goal of developing a vaccine capable for wide distribution to prevent infection at population levels,” said Luk H. Vandenberghe, director of Massachusetts Eye and Ear’s Grousbeck Gene Therapy Center.

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