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Biotech firm raises $20 million, sees progress on Covid-19 vaccine

Brian Hartz

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Tampa biotech firm Oragenics is working on a Covid-19 vaccine and recently secured $20 million in funding from the sale of stock. Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

Oragenics Inc. (NYSE: OGEN), a Tampa-based biotech firm, has raised $20 million from the sale of common stock and will use some of the funding to boost its research into a Covid-19 vaccine. The company’s vaccine, known as Terra CoV-2 and produced from a spike protein licensed from the National Institutes of Health, has gone through one round of clinical trials, to date, and a second phase is in the works. According to a Feb. 2 news release, the vaccine has been shown to produce protective immunity to the coronavirus in mice.

“We are in scale-up phase right now,” Oragenics President and CEO Dr. Alan Joslyn said in an interview with the Catalyst. “Our goal is to have an immediate intense response, which will hopefully lead to the development of a single-dose vaccine.”

Oragenics, which has just seven full-time, permanent employees, is not part of the federal government’s “Operation Warp Speed” public-private partnership that has produced one Covid-19 vaccine, made by Modern, to date. Instead, it’s producing critical research that will be used by a partner, probably a large pharmaceutical company, to manufacture a vaccine that, unlike the Pfizer vaccine, won’t require storage at super-low temperatures. Joslyn, who splits his time between Tampa and Philadelphia, said such a vaccine would be a breakthrough because it would allow medical professionals to vaccinate residents in hard-to-reach areas of the world, like the mountains and jungles of South America, for example. And making the vaccine available to people who live far from major urban centers will be key to restoring some sense of normalcy to international travel.

“You can’t look at the U.S. in isolation,” Joslyn said. “I get calls from people representing other countries looking to do a deal.”

The $20 million that Oragenics recently raised would be only a fraction of the cost of a phase three clinical trial, which would require upward of 30,000 participants, Joslyn said. So the company, which was spun off from research at the University of Florida in the 1990s and has a lab and research facility in Alachua, is on the lookout for partnerships in both the private and public sectors.

“We are in exploration mode, trying to develop certain relationships,” Joslyn said. “We would need support from Big Pharms, government or a major nonprofit like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”

Despite its long history, Oragenics is not yet profitable, but Joslyn said the company has always been a long-term play for investors, who’ve been highly loyal over the years. “People hold their shares for the vaccine and new class of antibiotics,” he said, referring to lantibiotics, which is another key area of research for the company.

Lantibiotics, Joslyn explained, are produced by slow-growth bacteria. “Because they grow very slowly,” he said, “they put out tiny concentrations of antibiotics. They are very potent — they prevent other bacterial colonies from growing on top and smothering [an antibody]. It’s like a skunk putting out a bad smell — it keeps predators away.”

Lantibiotics show great potential for treating secondary infections that occur when a sick person is transferred from one care facility to another, he said, such as when a nursing home patient goes to a hospital for treatment and picks up spores that can remain dormant and thus undetectable by existing antibiotics.

Oragenics’ lantibiotics research is in a more advanced stage than its Covid-19 vaccine work, but it has put the former on hold to concentrate on the latter, for obvious reasons.

“Covid-19 is a near-term public health emergency,” Joslyn said, “so we are taking every dollar and putting it toward the vaccine.”

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