GSK-Sanofi alliance: are pharma partnerships key to ending Covid-19?

Jamie Bell 7th May 2020 (Last Updated May 7th, 2020 14:13)

GSK and Sanofi announced an "unprecedented" partnership last month - with the goal of developing an adjuvanted Covid-19 vaccine

GSK-Sanofi alliance: are pharma partnerships key to ending Covid-19?
Other large pharma companies like Pfizer have also chosen to collaboration with smaller biotech firms (Credit: Pixabay)

Finding a Covid-19 vaccine – and ultimately resolving the global pandemic – may depend on collaborations like the one recently formed between GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Sanofi.

Such partnerships will be “extremely important” moving forward, said GlobalData infectious disease analyst Philipp Rosenbaum, not least because they can bring together new ideas and innovation with experience in the field. 

“As two large vaccine manufacturers, Sanofi and GSK certainly have a great amount of expertise – not only in vaccine production speed and capacity, but also in running large-scale clinical trials,” Rosenbaum said.

“This may be in contrast to smaller companies, who might be running their first clinical trial ever. 

“However, as smaller vaccine biotechs like Moderna and BioNTech team up with larger entities like the National Institutes of Health [NIH] and Pfizer respectively, if and how the GSK-Sanofi joint venture could speed things up even more is unclear.

“In any case, the more companies that are trying to develop a vaccine, the higher the chances are that one might succeed.”


The GSK-Sanofi partnership

Two of the world’s biggest pharma firms, GSK and Sanofi, announced in April that they had entered into an “unprecedented” partnership to develop an adjuvanted vaccination for Covid-19.

Adjuvanted vaccines contain an adjuvant – a substance that promotes a better immune response from the patient, meaning a smaller amount of the virus is required in a given vaccine dose.

An effective adjuvanted vaccine for Covid-19 would therefore mean greater quantities can be manufactured overall, which is now more beneficial than ever as billions of people are likely to want access once one is made commercially available. 

GSK, which, in terms of market share, is narrowly ahead of AstraZeneca as the UK’s biggest drug company, is contributing its own proven adjuvant technology to the partnership.

France-based Sanofi is providing its S-protein Covid-19 antigen – technology that has produced an exact genetic match to proteins found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – alongside this.

The two companies plan to initiate phase I clinical trials for a vaccine in the second half of 2020 and, subject to the results of these tests, and regulatory considerations, will aim to make it commercially available by the second half of 2021. 

Following the partnership announcement, Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson said: “As the world faces this unprecedented global health crisis, it is clear that no one company can go it alone.

“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.”


Challenges ahead for GSK-Sanofi’s upcoming vaccine trial

Rosenbaum anticipates that enrollment for clinical trials of GSK and Sanofi’s adjuvanted vaccine “could start soon” – although there are several steps that must be negotiated first.

All the vaccine components must be fully developed and physically combined, animal trials – if the firms choose to run them – must show no serious adverse effects, and a sufficient quantity of the vaccine must be produced before clinical testing involving humans can begin.

“With decreasing numbers of Covid-19 patients, finding enough participants at specific trial sites could also be an issue,” said Rosenbaum. 

“Many experts anticipate a second wave of Covid-19 in the winter, in which case there might be enough participants available again – but there is uncertainty over when and where the virus will hit.”

Rosenbaum also believes the lasting impact of Covid-19 on future large-scale collaborations in the pharmaceutical sector remains to be seen.

He said: “I anticipate things will go back to ‘normal’ – or at least how they were before – but maybe in the next emergency scenario partnerships will be formed much more quickly than they have been this time.”