BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - Acambis plc put the flesh on plans to move its focus away from biodefense following the announcement that the CEO and CFO are to leave, and the company will restructure to cut costs by 20 percent.

The aim is to apply the proceeds from its U.S. smallpox vaccine contract to shift toward what are described as "high value biotechnology projects" either arising from the company's ChimeriVax vaccines platform technology, or acquired through merger and acquisition.

Speaking at Acambis's full year financial results meeting in London last week, Peter Fellner, chairman, said the acquired products would not necessarily be vaccines.

"We may look at monoclonals in infectious disease, or other therapeutic areas, which are vaccine-like. A strategic review last autumn showed there are a surprising number of companies that could potentially be a really good fit, particularly in the U.S," he said.

This is where Ian Garland, CEO-in-waiting, fits in. Fellner said Garland has extensive U.S. commercial experience, with a lot of "transactional focus." In addition, "He is known to me: Changing CEOs is not without risk, and [Garland] reported to me at Celltech," said Fellner.

Garland is due to take over June 1. Until then, current CEO Gordon Cameron remains as head of the Cambridge, UK-based company.

Having the cash to achieve the proposed transformation hinges on the company securing a long-term manufacturing contract with the U.S. government to maintain the smallpox vaccine stockpile. "If we don't get the warm base [contract] we will have to look at the total structure," Fellner said.

Obtaining the contract depends on when the Biologics License Application (BLA) for the vaccine, ACAM 2000, is granted. Most recently Acambis answered questions on the BLA posed by the FDA. "There was nothing we thought would be a show stopper," said Cameron, who hopes approval will be granted in May. "That would then be the trigger for warm-base manufacturing."

There is pressure for ACAM2000 to be approved. Apart from rubber stamping the product in the stockpile, it will enable the U.S. military to stop using the existing animal-based vaccine and switch to the Acambis cell-based product. About 200,000 U.S. military personnel per annum receive smallpox vaccinations.

While work on ACAM2000 continues, Acambis has stopped any further development of its modified vaccinia ankara (MVA) smallpox vaccine, following the decision of the U.S. government in December to exclude the company from the contract to supply that vaccine, designed for children or those with weak immune systems. "It makes no sense to continue with MVA if the biggest customer is not going to buy it," said Cameron.

Cameron said it was a "bitter experience" to be dropped from the MVA contract. He has had some feedback on the reasons, but it is too sensitive to discuss them at this stage because the process of awarding the MVA contract is ongoing, and Acambis remains in litigation with the likely winner, Bavarian Nordic A/S, of Kvistgard, Denmark.

However, Cameron did note the reasons given, "are technical [ones], specific to our MVA3000 product and not related to our organization's abilities." He added that from Acambis's point of view the litigation with Bavarian is no longer relevant. "Our goal is to spend little or nil money on this process."