- Sanofi plans to spend 400 million euros, or about $476 million, a year to speed the development of next-generation vaccines based on messenger RNA technology, announcing Tuesday a center of excellence that will help advance shots developed through its partnership with biotech Translate Bio.
- The new mRNA vaccines center will have 400 employees at two sites in Massachusetts and France, and will be "fully financed through resource reallocation," Sanofi said in a statement. The center is expected to help the French pharmaceutical giant bring at least six experimental shots into human testing by 2025.
- Though Sanofi is a global leader in vaccine development, the company hasn't played a big role combating the spread of COVID-19, as the two programs it's worked on with Translate and GlaxoSmithKline have yet to prove their worth. But Sanofi has identified mRNA technology as key to the future of its vaccine business, and plans to use its new center to develop shots that prevent disease well after the pandemic ends.
Sanofi specializes in protein-based vaccines, which work by using a synthetic piece of a virus to stimulate an immune response. It's a tried-and-true technology with a massive manufacturing infrastructure, and one that enables Sanofi to deliver a huge number of doses for endemic diseases like influenza and hepatitis.
But that technology, while well-established, can't be designed as quickly as those that rely on mRNA, which teaches cells to make the viral proteins. That's one of the reasons Sanofi fell behind in developing an effective coronavirus vaccine, and has since watched as rival shots from Moderna as well as partners Pfizer and BioNTech have become critical tools against COVID-19.
Sanofi's approach to the pandemic was two-fold, partnering with GlaxoSmithKline on a protein-based vaccine and also with Translate Bio on an mRNA shot. But both have been slower to progress than others. An initial version of the GSK-partnered vaccine, for instance, stimulated a lower-than-expected immune response, leading the two to scrap that shot in favor of a newer candidate currently in late-stage testing. The mRNA vaccine it's developing with Translate, meanwhile, began an early-stage trial in the first quarter of 2021, well after the first authorizations for Moderna and BioNTech's shots.
But Sanofi has shown an interest in mRNA technology for years, having struck deals with Translate and CureVac in 2015 and 2018, respectively. The drugmaker's announcement Tuesday signals that that interest — as well as its commitment to Translate — has grown. Translate's shares climbed 12% in morning trading following Sanofi's announcement.
Among the objectives of the center of excellence will be improving "thermostability and tolerability," Jean-Francois Toussaint, global head of research and development for the vaccine division Sanofi Pasteur, said in a statement. Both are known limitations of mRNA shots, which can be logistically difficult to ship and store and can cause side effects like fever and fatigue. The need to store Pfizer and BioNTech's vaccine at ultra-cold temperatures, for example, limited the shot's early rollout. If mRNA vaccines are to be used in some developing nations without the required infrastructure, they will need to remain stable while distributed and stored at warmer temperatures.
Sanofi didn't specify which diseases it plans to develop vaccines for. However, Moderna and Pfizer both have expressed interest in addressing seasonal flu, an approach that might fit well with the need for coronavirus boosters should they become necessary.
The company said it would fully fund the center of excellence through resource reallocation. In an email, a spokesperson clarified that would not involve any workforce reductions or cancellation of other work, but rather building on existing capabilities and adding new people.
Note: This story has been updated to include comment from Sanofi that BioPharma Dive received after publication.