Sanofi will invest about 400 million euros ($476.4 million) in research and development of next-generation vaccines using mRNA technologies, which proved their efficiency in the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.
The French drug giant and its British counterpart GlaxoSmithKline surprised investors and customers late last year when they announced a one-year delay to the launch of their joint COVID vaccine, based on a more conventional technology.
Sanofi has since pledged to help Pfizer and Moderna manufacture COVID-19 shots in an effort to help meet the huge demand for the U.S. drugmaker's doses.
Sanofi added on Tuesday that its "mRNA Center of Excellence" will bring together around 400 employees, and was expected to produce a minimum of six clinical candidates by 2025.
"During the COVID-19 pandemic, mRNA technologies demonstrated potential to deliver new vaccines faster than ever before", said Jean-Francois Toussaint, global head of R&D at Sanofi Pasteur.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
"However, key areas of innovation such as thermostability and tolerability improvements will be critical to unlock the applications of mRNA in routine vaccination against a broader set of infectious diseases and across all ages," he added.
The mRNA technology has proven both effective and safe so far in the vaccine response to COVID-19, including in response to the virus' variants.
The latest one, the Delta variant first found in India, is spreading at a fast rate around the world, prompting governments to accelerate their vaccinations programs.
French Health Minister Oliver Veran said on Tuesday that the Delta variant represented some 20 percent of COVID cases in France.
Sanofi is also working on a mRNA COVID-19 vaccine candidate with U.S. company Translate Bio, for which it has started clinical trials.
The two groups, which have been collaborating since 2018, have also started a Phase I clinical trial earlier this year evaluating an mRNA-based investigational vaccine against seasonal influenza.
Last month, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline launched a late-stage human trial for a recombinant COVID-19 vaccine candidate, which they hope to get approved by the end of 2021.
That vaccine is based one of the most established technologies in vaccines - used against the human papillomavirus, hepatitis B and pertussis among other pathogens - which aims to introduce lab-made proteins into the body to prod the immune system into developing a targeted defence against the novel coronavirus.