Thomas Breuer and John Shiver

John Shiver and Thomas Breuer are vaccine leaders at Sanofi and GSK, respectively. (Sanofi and GSK)

John Shiver and Thomas Breuer 
SVP of R&D, Sanofi Pasteur and Chief Medical Officer, GSK Vaccines

Of all the major COVID-19 vaccine programs, only the partnership between Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline features two vaccine heavyweights—and self-described "fierce" competitors.

Their unlikely tie-up could be a hint of things to come in pharma, particularly if their quick push into human testing pays off the way the collaborators hope. Meanwhile, their technology, used in previous vaccines, offers an alternative to the newer and as yet unproven approaches used by some others in the vaccine race.

How the partnership came about, and how it has functioned since, has depended in large part on Sanofi’s senior VP of vaccines R&D John Shiver and GSK Vaccines' chief medical officer Thomas Breuer.

Way back at the start of the novel coronavirus outbreak, the disease had experts’ attention, Shiver said, and Sanofi started planning out a potential response.

Over at GSK, Breuer was “fascinated” with the prospect of developing a COVID-19 vaccine internally. But instead, his company quickly decided to “make a contribution which only GSK can make,” Breuer said, which was to allow partners access to its pandemic adjuvant technology. 

The two men's paths crossed in early 2020 in Washington, D.C., where Breuer approached Shiver at a Congressional hearing to tell him that GSK wasn’t planning on developing an internal vaccine. He knew that Sanofi had the capabilities for a protein-based approach, and told Shiver that his company was making its adjuvant technology available for partnerships. 

Shiver was back in touch “within a week,” Breuer said. What’s unfolded in the months since is an unusual setup in the pharma world—GSK experts working side by side with Sanofi counterparts on a daily basis, all virtually. 

“GSK was a natural potential partner,” Shiver said in an interview. “They have done more than anybody else in the field to develop new adjuvants and link them to new vaccine candidates in the last decade.” 

With an eye on the urgency of the project, Sanofi and GSK have committed resources at risk, conduced multiple processes in parallel and combined two stages of clinical development to further shorten research timelines.

Thanks to prior knowledge from the SARS outbreak, scientists knew early on “the spike protein would be the target antigen,” Shiver said. That approach “fit very well” with Sanofi's Flublok technology, and the team thought an adjuvant could help boost the response. In all, the combined efforts by the drugmakers have chopped years of normal development timelines, Shiver said. 

After starting human testing in September, the companies are now hoping to start their phase 3 trial in December and make the vaccine available for broad use by the middle of 2021.

RELATED: Sanofi chose a proven platform over speed in its COVID-19 vaccine hunt, CEO says 

The companies didn’t set out to be first, but instead wanted to work with a scalable and proven program. Unlike some of the leading vaccines, which use brand-new technology, regulators are familiar with the platforms GSK and Sanofi are using.

Sanofi’s vaccine technology is already used in its licensed flu product Flublok, and GSK’s adjuvant was used during the swine flu pandemic in about 90 million people, Breuer said. The partners now aim to be able to provide 1 billion doses of vaccines next year. 

Still, Breuer said he’s cheering on other COVID-19 vaccines. It’s “not the moment where you want to be the only vaccine which succeeds,” he said, adding that multiple vaccines are “really needed” to address the global pandemic.

Industrywide, the level of collaboration—between regulators, drugmakers, researchers and others—has been “unprecedented,” Shiver said. Looking forward, he believes companies could explore collaborations “a little more actively because of these experiences from COVID,” Shiver said. 

While 2020 has dealt the world setbacks, the positive collaborations resulting from the pandemic is one positive takeaway. 

“We are going to have a safe and effective vaccine, Shiver concluded. 

Thomas Breuer and John Shiver