Sanofi CEO: mRNA is likely the 'go-to' vaccine tech for a pandemic, but the 'bar is high' in other diseases

In the global COVID-19 vaccine race, mRNA vaccines quickly got out to the front of the pack and two reached distribution in less than a year. But their quick success in COVID-19 doesn't guarantee mRNA will replace traditional vaccine technologies across the industry, Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson told Barron’s. 

During a single-antigen pandemic, where speed is a key consideration, "I think we have to accept that ... mRNA is probably the first go-to," Hudson told the publication. But in disease areas where there are established vaccines, mRNA candidates will have to “compete with the standard of care” shots that feature a “well-characterized safety profile.” There, the “bar is high,” he added. 

Sanofi is the world's top flu vaccine player, and it's among the top four Big Pharma companies in vaccines. Last year, the company's flu franchise generated €2.5 billion ($3 billion).

The drugmaker isn’t sitting on the sidelines in mRNA, either. The company has an mRNA vaccine partnership with Translate Bio in COVID-19, and last year the Big Pharma inked a $425 million partnership in infectious diseases with Translate. Hudson told Barron’s he’s “excited” about mRNA in disease areas that “have never been treated before.” 

RELATED: Vaccine experts are excited about mRNA's success in COVID, but it's not time to 'walk away' from traditional shots: panel 

Other vaccine experts agree that traditional vaccines aren't going anywhere—at least, for now. During a Fierce Pharma virtual panel discussion last month, execs said that while the industry is clearly enthusiastic about the mRNA platform, it’s not time to “walk away” from established technologies. 

The “beauty” of mRNA vaccines is that the production process is “universal,” CureVac’s chief technology officer, Mariola Fotin-Mleczek, said during the event. The company has a COVID-19 vaccine in development.

“If you invest in huge production capacity, you can produce different vaccines in the same plant," without needing to “start from scratch” or switch production processes, Fotin-Mleczek said.

Still, there's no guarantee mRNA will “immediately work against all pathogens," Takeda’s vaccine head Rajeev Venkayya said. Researchers have been working for decades on vaccines against “very hard targets," he added, and the industry can’t abandon its progress with proven platforms. 

RELATED: Moderna could join top vaccine players by sales this year, CEO says 

In the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, mRNA vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna beat all other technologies to emergency authorizations. Thanks to past research in the field, scientists were quickly able to enter testing after receiving the novel coronavirus’ viral sequence. The programs rapidly progressed through human studies and won emergency authorizations in the U.S. and elsewhere. 

Now, Pfizer and Moderna are set to earn big revenues from their coronavirus vaccines. Pfizer projects $15 billion in COVID-19 vaccine sales this year, while Moderna’s CEO has said his company could join the ranks of the top vaccine companies by revenue in 2021. 

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca’s adenovirus-based vaccine has been authorized in many countries around the world, and another adenovirus-based program from Johnson & Johnson is set for an FDA review this month. Another late-stage candidate from Novavax, a recombinant nanoparticle vaccine that uses an adjuvant, has started rolling reviews in various countries.