As raging flu epidemic spreads, Sanofi Pasteur targets more effective cell-based universal vaccine

Sanofi Pasteur HQ
Sanofi Pasteur has signed a deal potentially worth $155 million to license cell culture technology from South Korea’s SK Chemicals. (Sanofi/Vincent Moncorgé)

Sanofi Pasteur has signed a deal with SK Chemicals to license cell culture vaccine technology as the raging flu epidemic in the U.S., one of the worst in recent history, highlights the need for a universal vaccine and more potent flu shots produced in cells instead of eggs. 

To get exclusive U.S. and European rights to sell any vaccines developed through SK’s cell technology, Sanofi will pay SK $15 million up front and $20 million once the technology has been transferred. SK is also entitled to $120 million if all milestones are met plus additional royalties on net sales.

Sanofi doesn’t just have any vaccines in mind, but one in particular—the so-called “universal” flu vaccine, which can protect against many strains of flu virus and doesn’t need to be updated seasonally.

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“We’re pleased to license this innovative technology today, as it brings us a step forward in the development of a future broadly protective influenza vaccine, a key priority for Sanofi Pasteur,” said David Loew, CEO of Sanofi Pasteur, in a statement.

Using the cell-based technology, where flu vaccine is made in animal cells, SK has already launched a trivalent flu vaccine in 2015 and a quadrivalent version in 2016. The manufacturing process is faster than the traditional egg-based technology, and its final products have the potential to offer better protection.

The nationwide flu outbreak in the U.S. could become the worst on record, eclipsing the 2009 swine flu outbreak, federal health officials said last week. At least 63 children have died of the flu this year.

A recent New England Journal of Medicine piece attributed the low flu shot efficacy this season to the egg-based production process, as the CDC reported that the circulating flu viruses are less similar to those used in egg-grown vaccines. That echoed a University of Pennsylvania study that also found better antibody responses from cell-based vaccines in the previous flu season.

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Currently Seqirus, which sells Flucelvax, has the only FDA-approved mammalian cell-based flu shot.

The SK deal will broaden Sanofi's efforts in developing cell vaccine technology. Last year it struck a deal worth up to $750 million for Protein Sciences and its Flublok recombinant flu vaccines, which combine part of flu virus with another virus and are grown in insect cells.

As for the race to a universal flu vaccine, Sanofi is competing with Johnson & Johnson, FluGen, BiondVax and University of Oxford spinout Vaccitech, which recently secured $27 million in series A backed by GV and others.