Sanofi, despite Zika controversy, jumps into HHS coronavirus vaccine partnership

Sanofi's vaccine unit is teaming with the U.S. government on a potential coronavirus vaccine. (Sanofi on Flickr)

Sanofi didn't hesitate to enter the Zika vaccine R&D race back in 2016, and despite the scandal that followed, the company is again jumping into emerging disease vaccine research.

In a new collaboration with the U.S. government, Sanofi becomes the second global pharma to join the rush to create a vaccine against the novel coronavirus. And the French company is starting from an advantageous position thanks to earlier work by a biotech it acquired in 2017.

The French drugmaker is joining with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ BARDA unit to develop a recombinant DNA vaccine based on prior research conducted by Protein Sciences, a flu vaccine biotech Sanofi acquired in 2017.

Responding to the SARS outbreak of 2002 to 2004, Protein Sciences advanced a vaccine candidate to late preclinical development, Sanofi executives said on a Tuesday conference call with reporters.

For the new project, the company aims to leverage that work—and Protein Sciences’ already approved platform—to quickly advance a vaccine against the novel coronavirus. Protein Sciences' approved recombinant flu shot, Flublok, was the centerpiece of the buyout.

A prospective vaccine against the new coronavirus could enter the clinic in 12 to 18 months and could be usable on a large scale in as little as three to four years if the outbreak continues and the vaccine succeeds in trials, executives said. 

Protein Sciences’ platform is well known and has a large safety database, offering advantages over unproven technologies, Sanofi vaccine chief David Loew said on the call. And while small biotechs have already jumped into the novel coronavirus vaccine race, Sanofi has a global presence to conduct trials and enough manufacturing capacity to actually deliver needed doses, he added.

RELATED: Sanofi pulls out of Zika vaccine collaboration as feds gut its R&D contract 

In prior preclinical testing against SARS, the vaccine platform afforded partial protection in challenge studies. SARS is a member of the same family of viruses as the novel coronavirus, now named SARS-CoV-2. 

Sanofi has experience in emerging disease vaccine R&D, but its last venture didn't yield a shot—and instead invited controversy. As the Zika outbreak raged in 2016, Sanofi licensed technology from the U.S. Army to advance and potentially market a vaccine. But a pricing controversy followed, and the outbreak eventually diminished. Later, the federal government scaled back the contract and Sanofi exited the collaboration.

Despite that situation, it was "not a hard decision" to get involved in this outbreak, Sanofi vaccine R&D executive John Shiver, Ph.D., said on Tuesday's call. The company has been monitoring the crisis and is worried about the continued spread, plus a potential worsening when people in China return to work, Loew added.

RELATED: J&J allies with BARDA to accelerate coronavirus vaccine program 

Going forward, industry and health authorities aren’t sure how the outbreak will play out. With many factors unknown—and the long-term economics uncertain—“industry can’t carry alone all the risks,” Loew said. That's why “collaborative relationships," such as Sanofi's partnership with HHS, will aid vaccine development.

Sanofi is the second global drugmaker to get involved as the outbreak has spread to tens of thousands of people in China and claimed 1,875 lives. Already, Johnson & Johnson has a vaccine partnership with BARDA, and numerous smaller biotechs are exploring the promise of their own technology against the virus.