April 17 (UPI) -- U.S. biotechnology firm Moderna has been given a government contract worth nearly a half-billion dollars to accelerate development of a possible coronavirus vaccine.
The Massachusetts-based company was awarded the funding Thursday from the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a division of the Health and Human Services Department.
Moderna will receive $483 million in federal funding to further research its potential COVID-19 vaccine candidate, "mRNA-1273."
A "phase one" safety study of mRNA-1273 at the National Institutes of Health began last month and involves nearly 50 volunteers. Should the vaccine prove safe, it will advance to "phase two" of the study in the second quarter, Moderna said. The third phase could begin as soon as this fall.
Government funding for the research will support late-stage clinical development programs and scale up Moderna's manufacturing capabilities, the firm said.
"Vaccines are a critical tool for saving lives and stopping the [coronavirus] spread," said BARDA Director Rick Bright, Ph.D. "Delivering a safe and effective vaccine for a rapidly spreading virus requires accelerated action.
"BARDA's goal is to have vaccine available as quickly as possible and preparing now for advanced stage clinical trials ... could shave months off development."
Pharmaceutical companies Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline agreed this week to cooperate on a vaccine they say could be ready by late 2021. Last week, NOVIO Pharmaceuticals said it received federal approval to begin the first stage of clinical testing for its vaccine candidate.