GSK chief: Outbreak prep demands more vaccine production capacity

Leading vaccine players need to learn at least one lesson from multiple deadly outbreaks that have caught scientific and health communities off guard. They need to create more manufacturing capacity to tackle future threats.

That’s according to GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty, who told a crowd at the company’s recent Rockville vaccines R&D hub opening that “there is almost zero excess capacity in the global vaccine world.”

“I don’t have a production line in vaccines which isn’t running all the time,” Witty said.

During emergencies, then, companies are forced to divert R&D resources while their manufacturing facilities struggle to keep up. During the Ebola outbreak, Glaxo was on the brink of reducing the output of its lifesaving rotavirus vaccine, Witty said.

“From an investor point of view and from a global health point of view, do you really want those choices?” Witty said.

With its Rockville site, GSK is seeking to “walk the talk” about global outbreak preparedness, hoping other stakeholders will join in the effort. So far, the U.S., Japan and multiple European countries are “engaged very actively," according to Witty.

The topic isn’t new: Recent outbreaks such as Ebola, MERS and Zika left health officials on their heels while companies worked on lifesaving drugs and vaccines. Last June, as MERS was claiming lives in South Korea, experts said a vaccine against the virus could be developed, but the research wasn’t completed because its commercial prospects weren’t clear.

But there have been some improvements. Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar said earlier this year he believes governments, vaccine companies and research institutions are starting to come together to address potential threats.