The world’s two leading vaccine producers, GSK of the UK and France’s Sanofi, last week announced that they are working together to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19); an unprecedented agreement that shows the scale of the challenge facing the global biopharmaceutical industry and possibly provides the world’s best exit strategy from it.


By combining our scientific expertise, technologies and capabilities, we believe that we can help accelerate the global effort to develop a vaccine to protect as many people as possible from COVID-19

Emma Walmsley, CEO, GSK

As of the 22nd of April 2020, there have been 2,585,468 cases of COVID-19 worldwide and 178,845 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard. The development of an effective and widely available vaccine has been identified as of crucial importance to finding a way out of a pandemic that has upturned lives across the globe. Companies are scrambling to develop an effective vaccine, with 67 coronavirus vaccine trials currently in preclinical evaluation and three in clinical evaluation according to the World Health Organization (WHO).


GSK and Sanofi’s collaboration agreement may though prove the most significant hope of finding a vaccine, given the two companies’ considerable financial might and expertise. Both firms have decades of vaccine development experience and a combined market valuation of well over USD 200 billion.


Clinical trials are slated to start in the second half of 2020 and the resultant vaccine made available to the public by the second half of 2021 if successful. Sanofi has said that it expects to be able to produce 600 million doses of the vaccine next year.


“By combining our scientific expertise, technologies and capabilities, we believe that we can help accelerate the global effort to develop a vaccine to protect as many people as possible from COVID-19,” said GSK CEO Emma Walmsley on the announcement of the partnership.


“As the world’s leading vaccine manufacturer, our No. 1 focus is to help to develop a vaccine… This is, of course, core to the exit plan that the world needs,” she added. “Both companies bring significant manufacturing capacity. While we have a lot of work to do, given that this is in an early stage of development, we believe that if we’re successful, we’ll be able to make hundreds of millions of doses annually by the end of next year.”


“We believe we’re one of the few companies who will be able to make a vaccine at a huge scale,” stated Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson.


A Joint Collaboration Task Force has been set up by the two companies to mobilise resources from both GSK and Sanofi to ensure the candidate vaccine is developed as quickly as possible. It will be co-chaired by David Loew, global head of vaccines at Sanofi and Roger Connor, president vaccines at GSK.


As part of the agreement, Sanofi will develop the antigen for the vaccine – targeting the signature spike protein of the coronavirus. GSK will develop the adjuvant – the agent added to a vaccine to boost the subject’s immune response to it and produce a greater number of antibodies. Adjuvants are also able to reduce the amount of vaccine needed per dose. This is especially important given the number of people any potential coronavirus vaccine will need to be administered to.


As Rick Bright, director of the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which helps fund some of Sanofi’s vaccine research, has stated, this collaboration “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.”


However, GSK executives were at pains to warn that even with the pooled resources of the two Big Pharmas, there will likely be a need for multiple vaccines if the unprecedented global demand for a coronavirus vaccine is to be met.