Sanofi: The “Tortoise” of the COVID-19 Vaccine Race?

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Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson ignited a heated debate around vaccine nationalism earlier this year when he suggested that the US, having made the biggest initial investment in Sanofi’s COVID-19 vaccine development, should have the first call on any vaccine that the firm was subsequently able to bring to market. In conversation at the FT’s Global Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Conference Hudson reflected on Europe’s rapid progress since that point and why his inflammatory comments back in March may have served to spur on the continent’s preparedness for mass vaccine manufacturing. He also touched on why he is not concerned that other companies will probably beat Sanofi to market and why their vaccine could be a slow and steady “tortoise” compared to the higher risk “hares” of other firms.

 

Having previously lagged behind the USA in terms of vaccine preparedness, Hudson now sees Europe as “in a completely different position to where we were [in March].” He added, “At the beginning of the year we were campaigning for European preparedness and the debate [around early access for certain countries] served as moment to charge the energy of all collaborators and stakeholders. Whether by coincidence or forethought, [it] became a call to action and we have seen so much progress since then. It acted a lightning rod to form coalitions, mobilise and energise. Now there are pre-orders for vaccines right across Europe, and not just from Sanofi.”

 

This could be a tortoise and hare situation whereby we are a little bit later [to market] but are using the only platform that has had an approved vaccine on it

Paul Hudson, Sanofi

 

The European Commission has also now followed up on calls from Hudson and other pharma CEOs to set up a European equivalent to the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). BARDA runs the US Operation Warp Speed to speed the development of COVID-19 vaccines, which made it far easier to negotiate US advance purchase deals. While Hudson noted the important steps forward taken, including the leadership role taken by France and Germany, and the UK’s pre-orders of vaccines stimulating other countries to do the same, he did point out that there is “work to do on infrastructure” for any future pandemics in Europe. “Many vaccines will be multi-dose so stockpiling glassware so that every syringe is individualised and having production in Europe for Europe will be important… The limiting steps won’t be science in the end but in our ability to manufacture and distribute at scale with certainty of quality, efficacy, and safety.”

 

Hudson bullishly rebuked the idea that the fact that Sanofi will not be one of the first firms to bring a COVID-19 vaccine to market is a source of regret for him or for the company as a whole. He noted that this was natural, given that prior to the pandemic some companies were already working on SARS vaccines which could be translated into COVID-19 vaccines, whereas Sanofi had shelved their research into SARS. Hudson also pointed out that Sanofi is well placed to bring a workable and scalable vaccine to market eventually, even if it is not the first mover. “We have 10,000 people working in vaccines in house,” he proclaimed. “We make a billion doses of vaccines for influenza, yellow fever, rabies, and meningitis every year, which means we know how to scale.”

 

He added, “Some of the [vaccine development] collaborations – I want them to succeed – but they are first time collaborations on first time scientific platforms [such as messenger RNA (mRNA)]. There will be some bumps in the road, so this could be a tortoise and hare situation whereby we are a little bit later [to market] but are using the only platform [recombinant baculovirus] that has had an approved vaccine – for influenza – on it.” Moreover, Hudson stated that the mRNA vaccines slated to come to market in early 2021 may be difficult to introduce in low- and middle-income economies with weaker infrastructure as they need to be stored at -70 degrees. “Cold chain will be a challenge at the beginning for developing nations,” he said.

 

Hudson was also optimistic on the potential durability of any Sanofi vaccine but was keen to underline that the longer-term development of COVID-19 into a seasonal phenomenon spread over multiple years and thus requiring annual vaccinations was still uncertain. With science still learning more about the disease every day and vaccines being developed at breakneck speed, there are questions over how long the vaccination efficacy will be. “My assumption is that vaccines will protect through this pandemic, then we will learn more,” opined Hudson. “There will probably be a difference in efficacy between platforms. For us particularly, back to the idea of the tortoise and the hare, our platform is proven … so we like to think we will be more likely to have a durable vaccine.”

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