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Coronavirus vaccine: Pharma giants GSK and Sanofi team up to find COVID-19 solution

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A researcher at Protein Sciences works in a lab, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Meriden, Conn. The biotech company is currently researching a vaccine for COVID-19.
A researcher at Protein Sciences works in a lab, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Meriden, Conn. The biotech company is currently researching a vaccine for COVID-19.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Jessica Hill
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In a rare move, two of the world’s largest vaccine makers have teamed up to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and produce it on a massive scale.

Britain’s GlaxoSmithKline and France’s Sanofi expect to begin clinical trials on their vaccine in the second half of this year, and if these are successful, they hope to make their product widely available by the second half of 2021.

“As the world faces this unprecedented global health crisis, it is clear that no one company can go it alone,” Sanofi Chief Executive Officer Paul Hudson said in a statement.

“That is why Sanofi is continuing to complement its expertise and resources with our peers, such as GSK, with the goal to create and supply sufficient quantities of vaccines that will help stop this virus.”

It’s an already crowded field. Around the world, dozens of teams – from universities to companies including Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Inovio – are racing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, and at least 78 candidates are actively being studied.

But GSK and Sanofi are hoping their size will give them an edge, as the number of infections approaches 2 million worldwide.

“Ultimately, it’s not just about discovering a vaccine candidate, it’s also to produce it at very very large scale. And we’re talking hundreds and hundreds of millions of doses here,” said David Loew, Executive Vice President of Sanofi’s vaccine branch Sanofi Pasteur.

“Typically, smaller companies don’t know how to pull it off. We have a lot of experience, being two very large producers, and we’re producing a lot of other vaccines on a very big scale,” he told Euronews Tonight.

Preventing a second or third wave

Both companies said they were committed to making any vaccine they develop “affordable to the public” and accessible to people all around the world. They did not elaborate.

Loew said it was too early to discuss pricing or how both companies would share any financial gains from a vaccine. He said the focus at this point was to “discover, test and produce on a very large scale these vaccines that we need so desperately.”

“Because our hypothesis is there is going to be a second, third wave, and there are even some epidemiologists saying it might become a seasonal disease, so clearly we don’t know enough about the disease yet. We have to really focus on getting the vaccine delivered, that’s really our quest here,” he said.

Under the partnership, Sanofi Pasteur will test its experimental COVID-19 vaccine, which is based on recombinant DNA technology already tried and tested in its flu vaccine. GSK, meanwhile, will supply adjuvants – additives that boost the immune response and can reduce the amount of vaccine protein required per dose. That would allow more doses to be produced, and therefore more people to be vaccinated.

Alliances all around

The process of bringing a vaccine to market typically takes years. After initial safety trials, larger clinical studies must be carried out to test the vaccine’s efficacy and track any side effects, while manufacturing capacity must be scaled up.

Given the costs of vaccine research and development, and the urgency posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, companies are now trying out new types of partnerships.

Sanofi already announced in February that it had teamed up with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (Barda), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on the development of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine.

“Strategic alliances among vaccine industry leaders are essential to make a coronavirus vaccine available as soon as possible,” said BARDA Director Rick A. Bright.

The partnership between Sanofi and GSK “holds the potential to lower the vaccine dose to provide vaccine to a greater number of people to end this pandemic, and help the world become better prepared or even prevent future coronavirus outbreaks,” he added.