CSL makes $4bn+ move in mRNA vaccines with Arcturus deal

by Stephen Riddle

Australia’s CSL is the latest vaccines company to buy into the mRNA category, tapping US biotech Arcturus Therapeutics for a wide-ranging alliance targeting COVID-19, influenza and other respiratory pathogens, including those that may cause future pandemics.

CSL’s vaccines unit CSL Seqirus division is paying Arcturus $200 million upfront to gain access to its self-amplifying mRNA technology platform and exclusive licenses to several vaccine candidates, with another $4.3 billion on offer in milestones if the programmes meet development and commercial objectives.

The promise in the self-assembling RNA technology lies in its potential to achieve a strong immune response using a lower dose of antigen than the current generation of mRNA shots, although it is generally a larger molecule and may be more challenging to deliver.

According to a statement from the two companies, Arcturus will contribute its STARR self-amplifying mRNA vaccine and LUNAR lipid nanoparticle delivery platform, which has already been deployed in the development of COVID-19 vaccine ARCT-154.

Arcturus has reported that its COVID-19 vaccine is 95% effective in preventing severe disease, and also protects against new variants of the virus including Omicron BA.5.

The deal comes after an expansive period for CSL that has seen it make a number of bolt-on deals, most notably its $11.7bn takeover of Swiss pharma Vifor which closed earlier this year but also smaller deals with uniQure for a haemophilia gene therapy and Translational Sciences for a clot-busting drug with potential as a stroke and pulmonary embolism therapy.

“This collaboration is an exciting opportunity to complement CSL’s own next generation mRNA programme with a partner who developed a platform to deliver late stage clinical supplies at scale,” said CSL’s chief operating officer Paul McKenzie.

The rise to prominence of mRNA during the pandemic has prompted a number of alliances and takeovers between companies operating in this area and big vaccine developers. For example Sanofi paid $3.2 billion to buy Translate Bio last year, and also snapped up Tidal Therapeutics for $470 million.

Meanwhile, Pfizer has doubled down on its massively successful alliance with BioNTech, GSK is partnering with CureVac, AstraZeneca has teamed up with VaxEquity and Merck & Co recently paid $150 million upfront to work with Orna Therapeutics in a deal valued at up to $3.5 billion.

CSL Seqirus’ general manager Steve Marlow said the alliance would lead to “enhanced vaccines for influenza and multi-pathogen pandemic preparedness”, whilst also offering a potential COVID-19 booster shot to healthcare providers and governments around the world.

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