Coronavirus: New Zealand's COVID-19 Vaccine Corporation raises $1.5 million for unique bio-bead vaccine in an hour

The fundraising campaign for a New Zealand effort to make a COVID-19 vaccine is off to a flying start, pulling in $1.5 million in less than an hour.

The COVID-19 Vaccine Corporation is using homegrown 'bio-bead' technology to make a vaccine it hopes will prove more effective than those first out of the gate, and cheaper and easier to distribute.

"We raised over $1.5 million... within an hour. It's fantastic, isn't it?" chief executive Robert Feldman told The AM Show on Thursday. 

"I kind of knew a little that it might happen because the equity crowdfunding that opened yesterday is divided into two halves - there's the wholesale half and a retail half. Wholesale is professional investors, and the retail half is open to every New Zealander."

The wholesale side went immediately, with $1.5 million pledged - far in excess of the minimum $100,000 they were aiming for by this time next month. The retail side has so far had $76,800 pledged, with 29 days left to reach their $1 million target. 

The New Zealand-made vaccine consists of bio-beads developed by scientists in Palmerston North coated with proteins created using genetic data from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Earlier this year it was simply an idea, and Dr Feldman's team got to work with $500,000 in funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. 

In October Dr Feldman's team announced they'd successfully created the "guts of the vaccine", proving it could work - prompting their hunt for extra funding, with the Government yet to pitch in any more. 

Robert Feldman.
Robert Feldman. Photo credit: The AM Show

There are dozens of other efforts around the world to develop a vaccine, most with much bigger budgets than New Zealand's COVID-19 Vaccine Corporation. Pfizer and BioNTech this week said theirs, currently in phase three trials involving tens of thousands of volunteers, looks to be about 90 percent effective - much higher than anyone expected

"The results from the Pfizer vaccine are fantastic - it's preliminary, remember, and there might be some nuances in terms of how well it works, but it's a very important piece of data because it shows vaccines can work," said Dr Feldman.

While many have made the assumption that means the race for a vaccine might soon be over, that's not quite the case. 

"It looks like it will be a good vaccine, but that vaccine is really difficult to store and distribute," said Dr Feldman. 

"It has to be stored at an incredibly low temperature. We don't - no country has the facilities at the moment. You've got to buy a lot of specialist freezers. It will be hard. I'm sure it will be achievable, but it's not easy to put in place and it's not cheap to maintain. It's a logistics issue, which with money and planning gets solved, but it's not a straightforward issue."

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine needs to be stored at -70C. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says that will pose logistical challenges not just for developing nations, but wealthy ones too. 

"If we had another vaccine that didn't have to have all this infrastructure, life would be much easier," said Dr Feldman. 

The long-term effectiveness of Pfizer's vaccine - and others - still isn't clear either. Early efforts at vaccines are likely to need boosters down the track, said Dr Feldman - and there's no guarantee what price their developers will charge. COVID-19 Vaccine Corporation's unique bio-bead technology might not just work better, but be cheaper - important considering our close connections to island nations without massive GDPs.

"One of the nice things about our approach is it has a very efficient way of being produced. We could easily produce enough vaccines for New Zealand, for the Pacific Islands, for Australia."

Human trials are still about a year away, he says. They'll need $8 million for the first phase, then possibly "hundreds of millions of dollars" for the second and third, before it can be approved for general use. 

"The reason why we have just gone out to do this equity crowdfunding and ask New Zealanders... is because we achieved a real important milestone last month. When we started the company earlier this year we thought it was a great idea that we could use these Kiwi-developed biodegradable bio-beads as the basis for a vaccine. But we set ourselves a really hard milestone in October - we said if we don't make this bio-bead with a little bit of the virus coated on the outside of it, we will stop. 

"But we've done it."