Major drug companies team up to find vaccine

Two of the world's biggest drug companies are teaming up to try to find a vaccine for Covid-19 in record time - and they are pledging not to profit from it, at least in the short term.

GSK and Sanofi are collaborating on a vaccine - one of about 80 being developed by companies and academic institutions around the world.

Seven of those are already in early stage human clinical trials - squeezing years of research into months.

Dr Christian Felter, head of medical with the giant drug company Sanofi, told RNZ now was not the time for competition.

"This is a time of collaboration. No one company is going to solve this by itself."

Michael Nissen, the director of scientific affairs and public health at GSK, said they hoped to achieve in 12-18 months what might usually take 10 years.

"The hope is that human trials will start in the second half of this year and then hopefully, if it's successful, we will have a vaccine for the population of the world in the second half of 2021."

But it is not a done deal. Dr Graeme Jarvis, Chief Executive of Medicines New Zealand, which represents the big pharmaceutical companies here, said just 6% of potential vaccines actually reached a global vaccination programme.

"There is a high risk and a high failure rate and so it's reassuring that we've got well over 80 candidates that are working their way through the development program."

But first, researchers have a fiendishly complex puzzle to solve. Dr Felter of Sanofi explained that scientists start looking for sugars or proteins on the surface of the virus.

"It takes a long time before you figure out which of the dozens, sometimes hundreds of proteins is the right one," he said.

"Once you figure that out, you have to figure out how to make it, how to be able to formulate it in such a way that you can inject it into somebody, and that they will develop a protective immune response."

Dr Felter said scientists had a head start from knowledge of other viruses. Influenza vaccine was a good base to work from because it had to be regularly reviewed to combat the flu virus which was constantly changing

"The platform that we're using is already made to be changed but instead of putting in this year's influenza strain we're actually putting in proteins from Covid-19."

He said they were also applying their knowledge from SARS, which is another coronavirus, to see which proteins would need to be a component of a vaccine. "Taking those two pieces together, we've been able to give ourselves a massive head start."

But Dr Nissen from GSK said past experience had also highlighted dangers. Research on SARS showed there were potential risks involved in developing these vaccines. "It may lead to an increased immune response so that's why safety will remain a critical and important piece of the puzzle in having a successful vaccine in the future."

If scientists get that far then the challenge would become making enough of the vaccine to meet global demand.

Dr Felter said Sanofi was gearing up manufacturing capacity to produce hundreds of millions of doses

"Getting a product approved and getting through those trials is just the first challenge. The next challenge is producing it in sufficient volumes so that we can make sure that everybody who needs it, which is virtually everybody, can get one."

With a customer base of potentially the world population it would seem a lucrative proposition but Dr Jarvis said that both GSK and Sanofi have said they will not make money from the vaccine - at least in the short term.

"The cost of the vaccines for the world's population is going to be on a not for profit (basis) - they are not going to be making any profit from these vaccines when they come out during the pandemic."

Dr Nissen of GSK said it was a once in a century challenge. "These challenges, yes, they are devastating but they also stimulate real progress in medical and health innovation."

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