While GSK’s ego may have been bruised after an initial failure to develop a COVID-19 shot, its bread-and-butter immunization business is making strides elsewhere. Look no further than malaria, where the world’s biggest buyer of vaccines has agreed to purchase supplies of the company’s Mosquirix.
Girded by more than 30 years of research and half a decade of real-world pilot studies, GSK has snagged its first supply contract for its malaria vaccine, courtesy of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
UNICEF will pay up to $170 million to access 18 million doses of the GSK shot over the next three years, the agency said in a release. In 2020, nearly half a million kids died from malaria in Africa alone, which translates to a rate of one child death per minute, UNICEF pointed out.
Mosquirix was born out of more than 30 years of research by GSK, global nonprofit PATH and other partners. Alongside its specific malaria nod, the shot is also the first vaccine targeted against a parasitic disease.
Mosquirix snared a positive recommendation from European regulators in 2015, but a wider endorsement from the World Health Organization (WHO) didn’t come until October 2021. In the five-year interim, GSK ran vaccine pilots at WHO’s behest, angling to measure the shot’s efficacy in the real world rather than in carefully controlled clinical trials.
Last fall, the WHO said it was giving Mosquirix the thumbs-up based on one such pilot program in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi that had reached roughly 800,000 children. In December, meanwhile, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance pledged funding for malaria vaccine programs in eligible countries, paving the way for a broader rollout of GSK’s shot.
As for the new supply pact, “[t]his vaccine rollout gives a clear message to malaria vaccine developers to continue their work because malaria vaccines are needed and wanted,” Etleva Kadilli, director of UNICEF’s supply division, said in a statement.
Still, there’s much work to be done on the malaria vaccine front, Kadilli said, stressing the need for companies to develop “new and next-generation vaccines to increase available supply and enable a healthier vaccine market.”
UNICEF expects malaria-afflicted countries will be clamoring for the shot early on, with supplies limited at first “as with any new vaccine.” The agency hopes “supply will increase over time as manufacturing capacity ramps up to the level required.”
As vaccine volumes increase, the cost per dose should drop, too, UNICEF pointed out. Meanwhile, schemes to boost production, including technology transfer, are already underway, the agency said.
Ahead of WHO’s October Mosquirix recommendation, GSK last year said it was gearing up to support a wide rollout of the shot. The British pharma pledged to donate 10 million Mosquirix doses to its pilot programs, plus up to 15 million doses more each year at "no more than 5% above cost of production,” the company said at the time.
Also in 2021, GSK kicked off a product transfer process with India’s Bharat Biotech to further bolster supply.
More than 30 countries suffer from moderate to high malaria transmission, according to WHO data. Once supply scales up, UNICEF figures the shot could afford added protection against malaria to over 25 million children each year.
Elsewhere in GSK’s vaccines business, the company is gearing up for a busy flu season in North America and beyond. Last month, the company agreed to provide Canada with as many as 80 million doses of its adjuvanted pandemic flu vaccine Arepanrix plus at least 4 million annual doses of the seasonal shot Flulaval Tetra.
Earlier that same month, GSK said it had started shipping the first of more than 50 million doses of its quadrivalent shots to U.S. healthcare providers and pharmacies for the upcoming season.
The company is also busy growing its superstar shingles shot Shingrix after a pandemic slowdown.