While Big Pharma companies like Pfizer, Janssen and AstraZeneca, have grabbed the headlines over the past year for their work on COVID-19 vaccines, smaller and lesser-known companies are also playing a crucial role in the development of both large companies’ candidates and their own self-developed shots.
At the onset of the pandemic, the eyes of the pharmaceutical world turned naturally towards France, where Lyon-based Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccine division of Sanofi, is headquartered. But, after the giant’s first vaccine candidate obtained disappointing preliminary results, it is another French vaccine specialist which now promises to help the world’s much needed COVID-19 vaccine supply: Valneva.
Based in the northwestern city of Saint-Herblain, Valneva is a vaccine biotech company focusing on developing, manufacturing and commercializing vaccines for infectious diseases, more specifically, travel vaccines. The company was founded in 2013 and is the result of the merger between Vivalis and Intercell.
“Both [Intercell and Vivalis] looked for a merger as a strategic growth opportunity. Both companies, although small, had a financial self-sustainability strategy in place,” Thomas Lingelbach, former Intercell CEO and current Valneva CEO, told PharmaBoardroom back in 2013, months after the merger was announced.
Lingelbach’s initial prediction that the merger would create a strong player in the area appears to have become a reality. “Our vision is to be a leader in vaccine development and antibody discovery… We believe that we are able to consolidate innovation power within Europe,” he told us.
With manufacturing plants in Sweden, Scotland and Austria, Valneva has two currently approved drugs, Ixiaro, a vaccine against Japanese encephalitis (approved in Europe, America and Australia) and Dukoral, a vaccine against cholera (approved in Europe, America and Australia).
But the competition is tenacious. Sanofi’s vaccine business unit, with its 15,000 employees around the world and sales of EUR 5.9 billion, competes directly with the company in both of their travel vaccines for cholera and Japanese encephalitis. To put the size differential into perspective, Valneva posted sales of EUR 110 million in 2020 and holds only around 580 employees.
The company fits the profile of a successful biotech on the verge of going big. Their pipeline is small, yet strong: a vaccine candidate for Lyme disease in Phase II clinical trials, for which they have partnered with Pfizer on co-development and commercialisation; a candidate for Chikungunya also in Phase III trials; and VLA2001, the COVID-19 vaccine based on their successful Ixiaro vaccine.
Valneva’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate has made news around the world after it was announced that Phase III clinical trials will begin in April 2021. The company said that the candidate proved to be “generally safe and well tolerated across all dose groups tested, with no safety concerns identified by an independent Data Safety Monitoring Board.” VLA2001 is currently the only inactivated, adjuvanted whole virus vaccine candidate in clinical trials against COVID-19 in Europe.
Valneva has signed a deal with the UK government for up to 190 million doses by 2025 in a deal that could reportedly be worth up to EUR 1.4 billion. The company is also in talks with the European Union to supply 60 million doses. During a time when countries are in the midst of a fierce battle over vaccine doses, it was reported that French officials were “furious” as Britain “snatched” Valneva’s vaccine deal from under their nose.
The company’s CFO, David Lawrence, said in early February that they are exploring an entry to the US market and the first batch of doses promised to the UK were due to be delivered in September. Commercial production in Scotland began months ago.
But if Valneva aims to secure more big-ticket contracts for their COVID-19 vaccine, it will most likely have to partner to increase its manufacturing capabilities, even though its existing manufacturing plants produce high yields.