• The Financial District


The race for a COVID-19 vaccine has a dark horse entrant. Billionaire scientist and businessman Patrick Soon-Shiong announced in a 27 May investor call that an experimental vaccine being developed by two of his companies is on the short list of 14 candidates being evaluated by Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s push to deliver 300 million doses of effective COVID-19 vaccines by January 2021.

Soon-Shiong, owner of The Los Angeles Times  and a part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, has drawn extensive coverage for his ambitious goals, such as wanting to create a revolution in cancer treatment through NantWorks, the umbrella of NantKwest and eight other companies. But he has also received sharp criticisms—including in STAT and Forbes—for not delivering on those promises and repackaging what others see as conventional wisdom, Jon Cohen wrote for Science on June 1, 2020. 

Although the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has so far announced financial backing for five other vaccine candidates, including from Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca, it has not publicly said a word about Soon-Shiong’s vaccine. Nor has HHS committed any money to the effort so far, Soon-Shiong acknowledges, although he says Warp Speed is arranging monkey tests of the vaccine by a federal lab. “We’re not confirming anyone’s involvement in the initial group [of vaccines] unless a company is bound by fiduciary requirements to report contractual agreements,” says Michael Caputo, an HHS spokesperson for Warp Speed.

Soon-Shiong’s companies, the publicly traded NantKwest and the privately held ImmunityBio, have not published any data on their vaccine, which takes an unusual approach to stimulating an immune response against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. According to a 27 May version of a COVID-19 vaccine table regularly updated by the World Health Organization (WHO), 125 candidates are in development—and the NantKwest/ImmunityBio candidate is not among them. “We’ve been stealth,” Soon-Shiong says, explaining that until the investor call he tried to avoid attention for the vaccine candidate because of widespread assertions that he oversells his projects. #COVID19