Sanofi, GSK tie up for COVID-19 vaccine work with eyes on possible 2021 rollout

Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline, two of the world’s biggest vaccine players, may be competitors, but the COVID-19 pandemic has now made them partners.

In an unprecedented tie-up unveiled Tuesday, the companies are joining forces to work on a potential COVID-19 vaccine. They aim to start human testing in the second half of this year, and if all goes well, to file for potential approvals by the second half of 2021. 

They're also planning to build manufacturing capacity “at risk"—essentially, plowing money and resources into scaling up production even before a vaccine proves itself, GSK CEO Emma Walmsley said on a Tuesday morning conference call.

Because of GSK and Sanofi’s “combined scale," the partners could deliver hundreds of millions of doses annually, starting next year, Walmsley said. That heft is one of the big advantages for the partnership, she added.

The companies have already signed a letter of intent and will share each other's technology for the potential shot. Sanofi its chipping in an S-protein COVID-19 antigen based on recombinant DNA tech, while GSK is contributing its “proven pandemic adjuvant technology," according to a release.

Adjuvants allow vaccines to protect recipients with less vaccine protein per dose, meaning manufacturers can make more doses to ultimately protect more people. That's a critical factor during an evolving pandemic, where a successful vaccine would need to be deployed quickly and widely. 

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Before the collaboration announcement, Sanofi was already in two COVID-19 vaccine partnerships—one with the federal government and another with Translate Bio focusing on mRNA vaccines. GlaxoSmithKline was allowing its adjuvant tech to be utilized by various researchers. 

To get their work started, the two companies have created a joint task force co-chaired by Sanofi’s vaccine chief David Loew and GSK’s vaccine head Roger Connor. While the partners haven’t yet ironed out all the details, they’ve struck a technology-sharing agreement to allow the work to proceed. The partners expect to finalize the details of the overall deal “over the next few weeks.” 

They’re certain about at least one thing, though. Sanofi and GSK say they are prioritizing access and have committed to making the potential vaccine “affordable to the public and through mechanisms that offer fair access for people in all countries,” Sanofi’s release said. 

Both technology platforms the companies are offering are “proven” and the partners will work closely with regulators throughout the development process, GSK’s Connor said on a Tuesday call with reporters. The partners might be able to consolidate study phases, but will first have to test for safety and determine the dose. 

Overall, GSK thought the combination of the proven tech—plus scale--would give the partners the best chance of success on a shortened development timeline, Walmsley said. 

RELATED: Pfizer, BioNTech gear up to produce 'millions' of COVID-19 vaccine doses by year-end

Aside from the two partners, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson are also pressing ahead with their own aggressive COVID-19 vaccine R&D and manufacturing scale-up. Pfizer has allied with BioNTech for one effort, and J&J last week announced a $1 billion team-up with BARDA.

Amid the "unprecedented global health crisis, it is clear that no one company can go it alone,” Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson said in a statement. 

Numerous smaller biotechs and academic teams are involved in COVID-19 vaccine R&D as well.

Over the span of several months, the pandemic has swept through the globe, causing 1.9 million illnesses and 120,000 deaths as of Tuesday morning.

Editor's note: This story was updated after a GSK conference call with reporters.