Big Pharma collaborative trend to continue beyond COVID

Manufacturing collaboration between traditional rivals will be normal post-pandemic say GSK and Merck & Co., both of which are using their capacity to support fellow Big Pharma COVID-19 efforts.

The biopharma space has traditionally been a highly competitive arena. Retaining intellectual property through secrecy, litigation, and other means is crucial to ensure maximum revenues from products developed at high-cost and high-risk. Just look at how the entrance of biosimilars have decimated certain company’s top line results.

But a new era is emerging off the back of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least on the production side. Big pharma firms have jumped into the role of CDMOs to offer both manufacturing expertise and capacity to rival firms, ensuring enough vaccines and therapies to supply the globe.

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France’s Sanofi, for example, has skin in the COVID game itself through two vaccines is development – an mRNA-based candidate and a recombinant protein-based candidate. But the firm is using its global fill and finish capacity to support both J&J’s and Pfizer’s commercialized vaccines.

Novartis, meanwhile, which has not invested in its own COVID programs, is using its aseptic manufacturing facilities at its site in Stein, Switzerland to support the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and is using its Singapore plant to make the drug substance for Roche’s Actemra (tocilizumab), currently being investigated as a treatment for severe COVID-19-associated pneumonia.

And last September, Eli Lilly brought Amgen on board to support scale-up of various monoclonal antibody candidates being developed against COVID-19.

Speaking at the CECP’s Biopharma Investor Forum this week, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) CEO Emma Walmsley said industry’s unity has been essential to combat COVID-19 and this trend will continue in the future.

“I have been very proud to be part of this sector and stand alongside other CEOs and see what the industry has been able to contribute… And where competitive elbows got out the way, and people leant in against the common enemy,” she said.

GSK is Sanofi’s partner in its protein-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate, but like its peers has been contracted both Novavax and CureVac to help produce their respective candidates.

“This is a sector where partnership has always been important… No company can pretend they’ve got all the brilliant scientists in the universe inside that company, so, it has to be externally oriented, and that’s again, another culture change.”

Merck’s CEO Ken Frazier was equally optimistic about this sea change in the biopharma partnering perspective.

“The best approach is for industry to continue to show its ability and willingness to do things like we did with [antiviral drug] molnupiravir, which is to provide voluntary licenses to those companies that have the capability to manufacture. As you know, GMP manufacturing is pretty complex in the United States,” he told moderator Meg Tirrell from CNBC.

“And we want to make sure that if we’re going to have these vaccines manufactured around the world that they’re manufactured up to the quality standards that are appropriate.”

He also discussed his how his firm is supporting production of the J&J single-shot vaccine.

“We are two highly experienced companies. And yet, for Merck, this is adenovirus vaccine is something we have no prior experience. It’s going to take some time to convert two vaccine facilities – one in West Point, Pennsylvania, one in Dura North Carolina – to be able to manufacture the J&J vaccines.

“It’s a nontrivial thing to change those facilities to make them capable in manufacturing at GMP standards. We’re committed to doing it. We’re committed to doing it this year, next year and at least through 2023, so that we can make the single-shot vaccine available.”

He added that “as a society we need to be prepared for the next pandemic. And it’s not just a question of whether Merck sort of mothballs a facility for the next pandemic. It’s about making sure that we invest in the kinds of facilities that can be rapidly adjusted when we have a different pandemic. Because unfortunately, I don’t think any of us believe this is the last pandemic we’re going to see.”

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