Clement Lewin has been in the vaccine industry for 25 years, leading research for some of the pharmaceutical industry’s biggest players, and he’s never seen anything like the past few months.
“Unprecedented,” said Mr. Lewin, an associate vice-president at drug giant Sanofi S.A. who is at the forefront of the hunt for a pandemic vaccine. “I think for the people working on the [COVID-19] response, it absolutely will be a defining moment. I know it is for me ... I’ve worked on a lot of products but never quite this way.”
The US$50-billion global vaccine industry – a landscape dominated by a handful of international giants – is in an all-out sprint amid the coronavirus pandemic, employing methods the industry would never have contemplated even a few months ago. Fierce competitors are shedding their historic rivalries to team up in the race, proprietary technology is being shared more openly than ever, and researchers are working at an extraordinary clip.
“The pace at which we are working, the sense of urgency and the realization that we really need a vaccine if we’re going to hopefully control this pandemic and life will get back to normal, is something at least unprecedented for me," Mr. Lewin told The Globe and Mail in an interview.
This week, France-based Sanofi, which operates four Canadian facilities – two in Toronto and two near Montreal – partnered with Britain-based GlaxoSmithKline PLC, which also has operations in both cities, on the hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine. The move brings together two of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers, combining Sanofi’s antigen research with GSK’s proprietary adjuvant technology in the hopes of finding and eventually mass-producing a solution to the pandemic.
Antigens and adjuvants are two halves of a vaccine – antigens provoke an immune response, while adjuvants work as an amplifier, allowing manufacturers to churn out more doses using less antigen. This is especially key for COVID-19 given that once a vaccine is discovered, the world is going to need billions of doses as fast as drug companies can suddenly make them, with the first crucial doses going to front-line medical workers.
The intent of the landmark pact is to “accelerate” what each company would normally do on its own, GSK chief executive Emma Walmsley said, since most estimates suggest production of a proven vaccine is still at least a year away. Given the magnitude of the crisis, “It is clear that no one company can go it alone,” Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson said.
From universities to government-funded labs to major drug companies, there is a worldwide effort under way to search for a fix. It’s impossible to tell where the vaccine will ultimately be discovered, though companies such as Sanofi, GSK and others will ultimately be tapped to mass-produce it.
For researchers, COVID-19 presents a monumental challenge. Unlike the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, where a vaccine could be rushed out in six months because more was known about the strain, the fact that this outbreak is a novel coronavirus presents one of the most urgent challenges the industry has faced in years, Mr. Lewin said.
“The difference [with H1N1] was that we had a vaccine and a production platform, we just had to make the doses,” Mr. Lewin said. “This is completely different because we’re developing the vaccine from scratch.”
Sanofi’s facility in Cambridge, Mass., has also partnered with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a division of the U.S. Department of Health, which provided funding for the development of a vaccine. That agreement has raised concerns among researchers in other countries, including Canada, over how much influence BARDA could exert over vaccine production and distribution a year from now, particularly given U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America-first” position to date on medical supplies.
But Mr. Lewin and his colleagues at Sanofi’s Canadian operations don’t share those concerns. Dion Neame, Sanofi Canada’s medical lead, said the partnership with GSK should help ease supply chain problems, given the ability of both companies to mass-produce vaccines worldwide once the right formula is found
“I don’t worry about vaccines coming to Canada,” said Dr. Neame, who is based in Toronto. “When you’ve got GSK and Sanofi together … things like securing supply become less of an issue because they are global companies supplying the world.”
Mr. Lewin said governments and the industry should begin preparing now for the arrival of a vaccine next year, to avoid the kind of medical supply shortages that have hampered hospitals during the pandemic.
“I think we’re better prepared than we’ve ever been, but that doesn’t mean that we’re perfectly prepared. A lot of capacity is required – how do you actually [deliver] the doses? You’re going to need a lot of syringes to immunize people with," Mr. Lewin said. “It’s not enough to produce the substrate, the antigen and the adjuvant, but you also have to put it in vials, have the needles ready and be able to administer it and store it.”
Though the major pharmaceutical firms have been at the centre of the race for a vaccine for a few months, investors have only recently warmed to the sector’s growth prospects. For the most part, shares in several international drug companies, including Sanofi and GSK, have followed the broader markets throughout the COVID-19 crisis, falling sharply in March as investors sold off shares in droves, before regaining some of those losses in recent weeks.
This pandemic will likely have a lasting effect on the industry, Dr. Neame said. After decades of certain diseases being all but eradicated by vaccines, and the fears over those sicknesses diminishing, too, COVID-19 has refocused the world’s attention on the impact a vaccine can have.
“Somewhere along the line I think people have tended to forget how important vaccines are,” Dr. Neame said. “I’ve been a pediatrician for 30 years, I used to see meningitis and all those things ... and you barely see these things any more.”
The race for a COVID-19 vaccine will also reshape how companies operate, Mr. Lewin predicted, clearing the way for the industry to move faster, partner with rivals and share technology in the future.
“I think we will apply the lessons learned from this experience to hopefully accelerate vaccine development,” Mr. Lewin said. “Because you’ll learn things from this that will change, I hope, fundamentally the way we do things.”