We are living through an unprecedented time in history with anxieties about the impact of the coronavirus on our health, our families and the economy running high. And yet, like in many crises, we are also experiencing an extraordinary time of unity, collaboration, and individual acts of kindness. 

As a company, Sanofi is working in every way it can to do its part in combatting the coronavirus, including development of potential treatments  and accelerating work on two vaccine development projects, all while protecting our colleagues around the world and maintaining critical supplies of existing vaccines and other medicines.

The role of vaccines to fight COVID-19

Vaccines already save 2-3 million lives every year and could potentially play an important long-term role for the management and control of the coronavirus.

Specifically, Sanofi Pasteur is collaborating with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, to leverage its recombinant vaccine platform to unlock a fast path forward for developing a COVID-19 vaccine.

Developing a new vaccine requires immensely detailed and highly technical efforts to design a new mechanism to help prevent the virus that causes COVID-19. Once developed, we must confirm efficacy in clinical trials, while also ensuring quality and safety.

All vaccines use elements of the target virus to teach the human immune system to recognize and quickly neutralize it. Vaccines do this without causing disease. In most cases, completely new vaccines take decades to create, refine and develop. But science has been accelerating exponentially in recent years, and our ability to innovate with new tools and techniques are allowing us to shorten development timelines. Sanofi aims to have a first candidate vaccine against the new virus developed within 12-18 months.

How to accelerate responsibly

With the new coronavirus, we hope to accelerate processes in new vaccine development in two different approaches and in both cases, collaboration is key, says John Shiver, Head of Sanofi Vaccine R&D.

In our collaboration with the US BARDA, we are using an existing technology that was designed for influenza, and we’re applying it to the new virus that causes COVID-19 disease,” he notes. “Having the existing platform and partnerships are key to accelerating development as much as possible.” 

The development will aim to redesign the vaccine to teach the immune system to recognize not the influenza virus, but instead the new coronavirus. Sanofi is currently in the early stages of pre-clinical development and intends to take it into clinical testing as quickly as the critical scientific process allows.

Once the solution is in place, the technology should allow the production of large quantities of the vaccine relatively quickly as adequate manufacturing infrastructure already exists and was previously approved for production of influenza vaccines. “We have a proven end-to-end and validated platform, from vaccine to vaccination, ready to go, from research to an industrial standpoint, thus capable of delivering hundreds of millions of doses to maximize the impact on this virus and the life-threatening disease it causes,” Shiver adds.

In a second vaccine development project, Sanofi is working with Translate Bio, a biotechnology company specializing in messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). RNA is genetic material that plays an important role in directing biological functions in living matter, including viruses and human cells.  Like DNA, RNA is like an organism’s coding or blueprint. Messenger RNA technologies in vaccines seek to use portions of the virus’s RNA directly in relationship with the body’s cells to direct the cells to produce its own antigen and mount a corresponding immune response, without causing disease. In this way too the body should learn to recognize and eliminate the virus.

This is a novel approach. Several research organizations have clinical studies underway in support of mRNA use in vaccines (both against coronavirus and several other pathogens) but none have yet demonstrated efficacy.

“These are two different, innovative approaches, but as a company, we have a unified commitment to finding a vaccine as quickly and effectively as possible,” concludes Shiver. It’s impossible to say in our unpredictable environment and with limited current knowledge exactly how quickly a vaccine will be developed and begin protecting people from COVID-19 disease. Sanofi is working in that daily evolving context and it continues to collaborate to keep pushing forward its pursuit of this life-protecting solution essential to reducing the risks of this virus.