GSK, the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines, has pursued a different strategy to that of its contemporaries in the effort to develop a safe, effective, and mass-producible COVID-19 vaccine. PharmaBoardroom recently spoke to Emmanuel Hanon, GSK’s senior VP for vaccines R&D, to get his take on the company’s unique role in the global vaccine race and the challenges inherent in this endeavour.


While Pfizer has decided to use the innovative but as yet unproven Messenger RNA (mRNA) technology in its vaccine development and the likes of J&J and AstraZeneca are moving forward with a more established focus on monoclonal antibodies, GSK has decided to eschew developing its own vaccine in house altogether, instead deciding to provide its adjuvant technology to a number of partners. This is notably the paradigm of the company collaboration with Sanofi.


As GSK CEO Emma Walmsley told an IFPMA media briefing in late May 2020, “clearly, the world is going to need several vaccines. We decided that the best path forward was to offer our unique pandemic adjuvant technology to multiple partners and multiple candidates. This was important because it’s a proven technology in pandemic situations. It is proven also to be safe as well as effective. And critically, it can boost the immune response, and is therefore also antigen sparing so that you can produce more vaccine faster.”


We hope that this combined effort will lead to a number of successful COVID-vaccines that will use our adjuvant becoming available for people around the world at significant scale

Emmanuel Hanon, senior VP, vaccines R&D, GSK


Hanon elaborates on why GSK has pursued this strategy. “From the very beginning of the crisis we have focused on collaboration,” he states. “It is a strategy based on bringing together the strengths of the various players within the vaccine industry and other expert organisations. One of GSK’s key expertise areas is the adjuvant technology. Here in Belgium we have been working for over 20 years on discovering a series of substances – adjuvants – that we use in our vaccines to impact their potency. That impact can lead to an enhanced immune response and longer protection after the vaccine has been given.”


Hanon continues, “In a pandemic setting, another important impact of the adjuvant technology is its antigen sparing potential. Indeed, the antigen quantity – the identity card of the virus that is put into the vaccine – can be strongly reduced whilst still getting a sufficient immune response. With that approach we can significantly increase the quantity of vaccine doses produced, contributing to protecting more people.”


“This is why – starting at an early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic – we have made our adjuvant available to several scientific institutions globally. We have several agreements in place, including one with Sanofi, another important vaccine manufacturer, and others in Asia, Europe, and North America. We hope that this combined effort will lead to a number of successful COVID-vaccines that will use our adjuvant becoming available for people around the world at significant scale.”


This collaborative attitude is, for Hanon, vital in the eventual success of the global vaccine push. “In this unprecedented situation manufacturers are not competing against each other but are instead all competing against the virus,” he exclaims. “It will be great news for humanity if several companies are able to deliver successful vaccines. There are billions of people that will need to be immunised.”


“Both existing and new innovative platform technologies are being used to develop and produce future COVID vaccines. Existing platforms benefit from significant infrastructure (e.g. manufacturing capacity) established which can help in producing doses at scale. Several vaccines have proven to be effective and safe with the existing platforms. The collaboration between GSK and Sanofi falls into the existing platform category.”


Hanon adds, “Several players using new technologies are working hard to develop potential effective COVID vaccines, often in partnership with governments, universities, and other organisations. This is very encouraging and increases the chances to find several effective COVID vaccines that will become available for people around the world.”