Sanofi unveils its work on improving flu vaccines

The shortcomings of flu vaccines have been well documented in recent years, with strain drift and mutations often reducing the effectiveness of seasonal shots. Numerous institutions have put their resources behind improving flu immunization techniques, and this week Sanofi Pasteur revealed its own activity in the field.

Sanofi vaccines head Olivier Charmeil

Last year's world-leading flu vaccine supplier at 220 million doses, Sanofi Pasteur aims to "shape the future" with its flu vaccine research, Sanofi's vaccines head Olivier Charmeil said in a statement. This week at the World Vaccine Congress in Spain, the outfit announced that in collaboration with the University of Georgia it has developed a candidate vaccine through genetic sequencing of many flu viruses. The vaccine, dubbed Cobra, is designed to protect against multiple strains over several years using common sequences the strains share.

In the traditional flu vaccine production process, public health authorities identify several strains anticipated to circulate the next year, and companies make vaccines to protect against them. In contrast, companies are seeking out improved vaccines which would provide broader protection and more manufacturing flexibility; Sanofi Pasteur's statement said a vaccine such as Cobra could be manufactured year-round and provide protection for more than one year.

It's not a new concept, though, and Sanofi ($SNY) will be operating in a crowded arena. In its mission to improve on flu vaccines, the French pharma's vaccine unit joins the likes of Israel-based BiondVax ($BVXV), Wisconsin-based FluGen, Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), Scripps Research Institute, Vaxart and others. Over the summer, FluGen reeled in $12 million to fund a Phase I trial of its universal flu vaccine candidate, while BiondVax tests its own candidate in midstage trials. And in August, Johnson & Johnson and The Scripps Research Institute said their most advanced universal flu vaccine candidate fully protected mice in a lethal challenge.

Sanofi Pasteur SVP of R&D John Shiver

However, Sanofi Pasteur's senior vice president of R&D, John Shiver, said in a statement that while a universal flu vaccine is the "ultimate goal," it's more likely that a broader vaccine against multiple strains will be available before a vaccine that can protect against all strains. "Science, including vaccine R&D, tends to be an iterative process," he said. "It's an evolution."

The U.S. government has also gotten involved, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) recently committing funding to two separate projects intended to benefit pandemic influenza strategy. It granted $38 million to two entities; one will work on a room-temperature-stable recombinant flu vaccine and the other will seek to forecast how flu viruses change over time.

- here's the release (PDF)