An Inside Look at the First Crowdfunded COVID-19 Vaccine
It is every nation for itself in the global race for a vaccine, as countries hurry to secure a drug for their populations. President Donald Trump’s attempts to buy German CureVac earlier in March during the peak of the pandemic led Angela Merkel and her cabinet of ministers to discuss German defense strategy for the firm. Undeterred, Trump’s administration is giving out billions to produce not-yet-finished vaccines, while in Russian President Vladimir Putin declared triumphantly in August that his country had produced the world’s first coronavirus vaccine. (Technically, China was first, but you get the picture.)
Russia managed to get to the finish line first by omitting widespread testing of the vaccine. Renamed Sputnik V, the vaccine was approved before Phase 3 trials even began. Putin’s triumph represents everything that is wrong with the vaccine race — an attempt to rush science at the risk of sacrificing safety.
In a normal world, the process of developing a vaccine would take a decade, sometimes even far longer. It needs fine-tuning and, most importantly, time to make accurate observations. Most of the fast-tracked COVID-19 vaccine candidates produce too wide a range of antibodies; only a small portion of them has therapeutic efficacy, while the majority burdens our immune systems, potentially leading to negative long-term consequences, if there was a population-wide vaccination with these products developed in a rush.
Or, as Dr. Paul Offit put it for the New York Times, “It’s true that any new technology comes with a learning curve…and sometimes that learning curve has a human price.”
People are starting to take notice. There is a growing public distrust in the COVID-19 vaccine, and not only in the U.S. Another thing? Naming the vaccine program “Warp Speed” doesn’t help assuage skepticism over safety.
What it does, however, is generate great headlines. Trump’s vast billion-dollar spending program and bombastic rhetoric helps his presidential campaign; it does not help what is perhaps the most urgent mission in the history of medical science.
One thing that isn’t making as many great headlines is the fact that there are around 200 vaccines in development, and some of them are promising projects from independent science teams at private companies outside of Big Pharma and government interests.
ACvac1, developed by small European biotech company AXON, is one such project. For over 25 years, the company has researched Alzheimer’s disease in complete independence. They like that, and so they have decided to fund their COVID-19 vaccine through a crowdfunding campaign. European investors can buy a direct equity stake of up to 20 percent in the project through this website.
ACvac1 has achieved strong results in the preclinical stage, and AXON aims to fund the in-human trials through crowdfunding, before partnering with a pharmaceutical company becomes necessary for the final distribution of the vaccine. This way, they can stay in control of their science for as long as possible. After ACvac1’s approval, crowdfunding investors will be entitled to 20 percent of the vaccine’s global profits. They believe they are one of the few independent biotech companies that can do this (25-plus years, $270 million private money invested, successfully completed clinical stage II for their lead product AADvac1). So far, they have received great endorsement from people and are in discussions with a major studio about an upcoming documentary for a U.S. streaming service.
Some causes deserve the opportunity to be owned by the people, outside of the institutional capital that has to be naturally profit-maximizing. Crowdfunding emerged after the global financial crisis of 2008 as part of the backlash against Wall Street and the banking world in general. Similarly, the corona-crash may revive and even strengthen this trend because, like after 2008, people feel that their system has failed them.