J&J backs out of RSV vaccine race with rivals Pfizer and GSK

Health, Fitness & Food

A Johnson & Johnson building is shown in Irvine, California.
Mike Blake | Reuters

Johnson & Johnson on Wednesday said it’s ducking out of the RSV vaccine race, weeks after competitors Pfizer and GSK inched closer to launching the world’s first shot against the deadly virus. 

J&J will stop working on its investigational RSV adult vaccine program and discontinue a pivotal phase three trial testing the shot, the company announced in a press release. The New Brunswick, N.J.-based healthcare giant pinned its decision on a portfolio review “to prioritize the most transformational assets for ongoing investment.” 

“By periodically refocusing our portfolio, Janssen ensures that we are deeply invested in products that have the power to transform patients’ lives,” said Dr. Bill Hait, J&J’s executive vice president, in the release. “We remain focused on advancing our differentiated pipeline, improving the lives of millions of patients and developing new modalities in areas with the greatest unmet medical need.” Janssen is J&J’s pharmaceutical division.

J&J shares were relatively flat following the announcement.

Dr. Vamil Divan, Guggenheim’s senior biopharmaceuticals analyst, wrote in a note Wednesday that the announcement was a “disappointment but not a complete surprise.” The firm is maintaining a neutral rating on J&J, he added.

“Today’s news does not change our overall view on JNJ shares, but we believe it does increase the pressure somewhat on the company needing to deliver positive updates from other key pharma assets later this year,” Divan wrote.

Respiratory syncytial virus is a common virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. Most people recover in a week or two, but older adults and infants can experience more serious infections that can lead to hospitalization or death. 

The virus kills 6,000 to 10,000 seniors and a few hundred children younger than five each year. RSV cases spiked unexpectedly in the U.S. this past winter, overwhelming children’s hospitals across the nation. Since then, the race to create the world’s first RSV vaccine has garnered more attention than ever. 

J&J first launched its phase three trial in September 2021, enrolling roughly 23,000 adults ages 60 and older. A phase two trial on the company’s RSV shot found it provided 80% protection against severe RSV infections. 

But the company still lagged behind rivals Pfizer and GSK, both of which made major strides toward U.S. approval of their shots in the last month.

Advisors to the FDA recommended shots from both drugmakers despite the risks of a rare neurological disorder. An FDA review of Pfizer’s shot found it was about 86% protective against lower respiratory tract illness with three or more symptoms, while a similar review of GSK’s vaccine found it was 83% effective. 

Drugmaker Moderna also has its own potential RSV shot, which performed well in clinical trials.

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