GSK confident traditional vaccine tech has major role in COVID-19 efforts

The headline-makers in the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine are not the traditional firms, but GSK says its proven adjuvant approach will set its offering apart.

During GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK’s) second quarter financial call, an analyst from Wolfe Research pointed out the vanguard of COVID-19 vaccines were not being developed and made by the big three traditional vaccine firms: GSK, Merck & Co., and Sanofi.

Chinese efforts aside, the frontrunners dominating the media coverage are AstraZeneca/University of Oxford’s effort based on an adenovirus vaccine vector and the COVID-19 spike protein and Moderna’s mRNA program. Both of these are progressing in Phase III studies. Another program being codeveloped by one of the large vaccine makers Pfizer, but only after teaming up with German mRNA firm BioNTech, is in Phase II.

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For GSK, which according to market reports is the largest vaccine by revenue, pulling in around $35 billion annually, it has chosen to team with fellow traditional vaccine maker Sanofi in its efforts to bring a COVID-19 vaccine to market. However, the candidate is still in the preclinical phase,

Unlike the mRNA vaccines, GSK/Sanofi’s efforts are based on proven technologies – the baculoviral expression platform used to make Sanofi’s recombinant influenza vaccine Flublok and AS03, a squalene-based immunologic adjuvant used in GSK’s flu vaccines.

Such proven tech could give this candidate an edge in the COVID-19 vaccine race.

“We at GSK firmly believe multiple vaccines will be needed to fight COVID, and it’s why we’ve deliberately taken a unique collaborative approach with a proven technology to develop adjuvanted vaccines,” CEO Emma Walmsley said on the call.

“GSK’s adjuvant is proven in a pandemic situation, and alongside improved efficacy, it can help reduce the amount of antigen needed and get to scale faster. We can deliver more than 1 billion doses of adjuvant in 2021.”

Regarding the mRNA vaccines, she said: “We should all be encouraged by the early readouts with this offering on totally new technologies that haven’t ever been licensed yet. They are encouraging, but there’s still a lot to see on duration of response and particularly on efficacy on different cohorts.”

And as the GSK/Sanofi candidate uses technology proven at scale to be safe, it has come to the attention of various governments looking to procure COVID-19 vaccines as “there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what is going to play out in terms of results.”

Walmsley noted the deal announced that morning (Wednesday) with the UK government for the supply of up to 60 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine. And this morning the US government has procured up to 100 million doses in an Operation Warp Speed deal worth $2.1 billion.