Serum targets Merck, Sanofi stronghold with TB vax deal

Serum Institute of India has a history of winning shares in established vaccine markets by undercutting the competition. And now it has bought the rights to a tuberculosis vaccine it believes can beat shots by Merck ($MRK) and Sanofi ($SNY) on effectiveness, as well as cost.

The vaccine was co-developed and advanced into Phase II trials by three German research institutes, the Max Planck Society (MPG), Vakzine Projekt Management GmbH (VPM), and the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research. VPM and its collaborators based the vaccine on the well-established Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) jab, but used gene technology to refine its effect. The result is a vaccine that VPM claims prevents tuberculosis more effectively and safely than its predecessor.

"We successfully tweaked the original vaccine to be better at activating the human immune system and thus afford more effective and safer protection against the tuberculosis pathogen," VPM project manager Dr. Leander Grode said. Having advanced the vaccine to proof-of-concept, the German groups have handed it off to Serum for the final stages of human trials and production. Serum plans to distribute the vaccine around the world, and hopes to win approval in the next few years. The introduction of an improved, cheap tuberculosis vaccine could disrupt a market in which Merck, Sanofi and others compete for share.

Serum founder and chief executive Cyrus Poonawalla built the company by disrupting vaccine markets, notably with cheap shots for measles and DTP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis). In the past week The Economist has profiled Serum's next target--polio. Serum bought its way into the injectable polio vaccine (IPV) sector by taking over Dutch manufacturer Bilthoven Biologicals last year. GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Sanofi currently compete for the IPV market, selling jabs to Unicef for $5 each. Serum plans to sell its IPV for half that amount, and then drop the price further as volumes grow.

- read the VPM release
- here's the Economist post

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