Challenging the vaccine space: The problem with pioneers

With GSK, Merck, Pfizer, and Sanofi dominating the vaccine space, “the only thing pioneers get are arrows in their back,” say a group of industry experts.

At BioProcess International Europe in Vienna, Austria in April, Bioprocess Insider hosted a vaccine-focused roundtable. The panel brought together some of the world’s leading luminaries within the space to discuss some of the major challenges within the vaccine industry, from technology challenges to the online army of anti-vaxxers.

The group also spoke about the structure of the industry, and the fact that just four companies – GSK, Merck, Pfizer, and Sanofi – continue to hold over 85% of the market share in terms of revenue.

Cracking the vaccine industry and the ptfalls of being a small company. Image: iStock/Grindi

As to why this remains the case, Dan Adams, co-founder and executive chairman at NextWaveBio, spoke of his experience at as CEO executive chairman of Protein Sciences Corporation, a small vaccine firm that saw success when its lead product Flublok became the first recombinant influenza vaccine to be approved by the US FDA in January 2013.

“When I was getting into this industry, the famous banker George Quist warned me: ‘Never be a pioneer. The only thing pioneers get is arrows in their back.’ And that’s what happened,” Adams told the audience.

“We did all the clinical trials, and we filed for a biologic license when we had 30 people. FDA)got back to us right away and said, ‘We’ve noticed a typo in your application: You say you have 30 people; we think you mean 300.’ We said: ‘No, that’s correct.’ And they said, ‘We’ve never seen a BLA application from a 30-person company.’

Once approved, however, the firm had issues selling the vaccine. “The problem was that people are not used to paying up for flu vaccines. No matter what we did, we couldn’t sell it. The big companies have the market locked up.”

Selling to the Big Four

Manuel Carrondo, professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, FCT-UNL Vice President at iBET Portugal, supported Adams’ claims.

“To some extent that’s the business situation in the pharmaceutical industry overall: the pioneers with arrows in their backs. Once they have a product, they normally cannot grow fast enough to cope with all the issues of logistics and distribution, which can be global,” he told the panel.

Protein Sciences ended up being acquired by Sanofi for around $750 million (€670 millin) in 2017.

“It was bought by one of the big four, and the key point is that the product now is marketed to a much larger number of people,” said Carrondo. “You would probably prefer to stay independent, but that would have taken much more time. So, it’s a question of getting the product to the population that most needs it as fast as you can.”

And the full discussion can be viewed here: