Sanofi has halted development of its Covid-19 vaccine based on messenger RNA technology despite positive results in early-stage trials, acknowledging that it was too late to be useful when rivals BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna have captured the market.
The French pharmaceutical company will continue working on another Covid jab using a more traditional manufacturing technique with GlaxoSmithKline, which uses a recombinant protein molecule to deliver the antigen.
A laboratory mishap disclosed last year has delayed its development by at least six months, but Sanofi still aims to bring the jab to market by the end of the year. It plans to submit clinical data to regulators on its safety and efficacy as a single-dose vaccination and as a booster shot.
Thomas Triomphe, head of vaccines at Sanofi, said the drugmaker had decided it would have more impact on the vaccines market by focusing instead on applying its now proven mRNA technology to other diseases, such as the flu.
“There is no public health need now for another messenger RNA vaccine against Covid-19 when you can walk down the street to any pharmacy and get one,” he told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday.
“If we had come to market at the end of 2022 or early 2023, we would have been late and with no differentiation.”
Sanofi’s decision shows how mRNA has disrupted the once-staid vaccine business, leaving previously leading companies such as Sanofi and Merck racing to catch up. New biotech players including Moderna and BioNTech, which teamed up with Pfizer, were able to use the pandemic to prove the efficacy of their technology.
But it remains to be seen whether mRNA-based vaccines will replace more traditional inoculations, or if their success during the pandemic will translate to other disease areas. Given that Sars-Cov-2 was a new virus, mRNA vaccines did not have to beat existing treatments on efficacy or side effects, as regulators will probably require them to do for other infectious diseases such as flu.
For established vaccine makers such as Sanofi, the challenge is protecting their existing business from further disruption. The next battle is shaping up over flu. Sanofi earned almost €6bn in revenue from vaccines last year, of which €2.5bn was from flu.
The drugmaker said it aimed to start human trials for an mRNA-based flu vaccine next year.
But Sanofi risks falling behind again. Pfizer said on Monday that it was starting human trials for its mRNA flu vaccine now, while Moderna began similar tests in the US in July.
Triomphe said Sanofi had what it took to remain a top player in vaccines. “We have a solid and now proven platform on mRNA and are moving ahead quickly,” he said.
The group has ploughed money into mRNA recently. In June, it pledged to invest €400m a year on mRNA vaccines with 400 scientists working at a “dedicated centre of excellence” at sites in Cambridge in the US and Lyon in France.
Then in August, Sanofi announced that it would acquire Translate Bio, the partner with which it had been working on mRNA vaccines, in a deal that valued the US biotech at $3.2bn. “A fully owned platform allows [Sanofi] to develop additional opportunities in the fast-evolving mRNA space,” it said at the time.