Coronavirus Updates

April 14, 2020

GSK and Sanofi join forces on coronavirus vaccine

A scientist at the GSK research centre in Stevenage. The British pharmaceutical company is joining forces with French firm Sanofi to work on a coronavirus vaccine. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters


Two of the world’s biggest vaccine companies, GSK and Sanofi, have joined forces in an unprecedented effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, which combined have the largest vaccine manufacturing capability in the world, are working together on a high-tech vaccine, which they say could be in human trials within months.

According to The Guardian, the pairing of the two companies is significant because, if successful, they have the capacity to manufacture the hundreds of millions doses likely to be required on a global scale.

Paul Hudson, Chief Executive of Sanofi, 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.”

Emma Walmsley, Chief Executive of GSK, said: “This collaboration brings two of the world’s largest vaccines companies together. By combining our science and our technologies, we believe we can help accelerate the global effort to develop a vaccine to protect as many people as possible from COVID-19.”

Sanofi, which is headquartered in France, announced in February that it was entering the race to make a vaccine and has secured support from the US health department.

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The process

The British company, GSK, is already offering access to its technology to smaller teams, such as a vaccine effort at the University of Queensland, but this is the first collaboration that would have the ability to rapidly scale up manufacturing.

Two companies, GSK and Sanofi, joining forces rather than competing, in a vaccine effort is almost unprecedented, but the urgent need for a COVID-19 vaccine and the potential scale of the market is also not a typical situation.

The vaccine is based on an existing DNA-based technology that Sanofi uses to make its flu vaccine.

When the coronavirus invades the body, immune cells fight back by producing antibodies. These antibodies bind to specific structures on the foreign invader, called the antigen and in the case of COVID-19 the antigen is a spike-like protein on its exterior.

Sanofi has synthesised a stretch of DNA that encodes the genetic sequence of the spike protein. When this DNA is inserted into a harmless bacteria in the lab, it churns out little copies of the antigen— but not of the active coronavirus itself— which it hopes will trigger an antibody response, without causing illness.

GSK is contributing an add-on known as an adjuvant, that can be mixed in with a vaccine to trigger a stronger immune reaction.

This could potentially lower the dose required for each person by a factor of four, significantly boosting the speed at which doses can be produced.

The companies plan to start phase 1 clinical trials in the second half of this year and, if successful, say the vaccine could be widely available by the second half of 2021.