Glaxo, Sanofi ready to supply vaccines amid polio emergency

GlaxoSmithKline's oral polio vaccine (OPV)--Courtesy of the World Health Organization

In light of news that polio has once again emerged as a public health emergency, vaccinemakers GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Sanofi ($SNY) are reportedly on watch.

Thought to have been mostly eradicated in 2012, polio has risen at an alarming rate in the past 6 months. In response to the surge in cases, the World Health Organization on May 5 provided an update on recent progress to stop the spread of the disease, which causes paralysis.

Glaxo and Sanofi make the only two polio vaccines, Pediarix and IPOL, respectively. StreetInsider first reported that the drug giants are monitoring the situation after WHO's announcement.

In an email statement, a Glaxo spokesperson told FierceVaccines that it is storing vaccines to have on hand if needed and at the same time is providing vaccines to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to help WHO reach its objective to eradicate polio by 2018.

"We are systematically stockpiling OPV to meet this demand which is expected to require around 1.5 billion doses," a Glaxo spokesperson said. The oral polio vaccine, or OPV, contains a mixture of live, weakened poliovirus strains of all three poliovirus type and is most often used in immunization campaigns during outbreaks.

In 2013, GSK provided 412 million doses to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a public-private partnership led by national governments and the WHO, according to the company.

In countries where polio has been eradicated, Glaxo said it will phase out OPV and replace that jab with the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) to prevent the very low risk of polio reemerging from the live vaccine itself. Glaxo said it is working on developing lower cost combination vaccines for the developing world.

As the world's largest producer of IPV, Sanofi Pasteur has supplied 800 million doses of the vaccine since developing the first enhanced-potency IPV in 1982. 

"We are confident that we will be able to produce most of the global requirement for IPV," a Sanofi spokesperson told FierceVaccines. Also a major producer of oral polio vaccines, Sanofi has supplied more than 5 billion doses of OPV to UNICEF over the past two decades, according to the vaccinemaker. 

So far, polio outbreaks have occurred in central Asia, the Middle East and in Central Africa, according to WHO, and Pakistan, Cameroon and the Syrian Arab Republic pose the highest risk of exporting polio.

In response to the WHO announcement, the Pakistani government on May 7 said it will set up mandatory immunization checkpoints at airports and border crossings in an effort to curb the spread of the disease. The Central African country Equatorial Guinea has also launched the first phase of a campaign to immunize children against the disease.

- read the WHO statement