GSK vaccine chief aims to break dominance of mRNA shots

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GSK and Sanofi are setting their sights on ending the dominance of BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, after early data showed their shot had fewer side effects and lasted longer, according to GSK’s new vaccine chief.

Phil Dormitzer, who left Pfizer last year to join GSK as head of vaccine research and development, said in the long run people may prefer to be boosted with a protein subunit vaccine, such as the one developed by the British and French drugmakers. These vaccines contain the protein of the virus’s spike, rather than genetic code for it.

“Covid is important. It is not going away. It is changing,” he said. “As we head towards the late stage of the pandemic and the post-pandemic era, other things become important: tolerability, the temperature stability, convenient cold chain, and durability.”

Preliminary data suggests the vaccines of this type could have fewer side effects and last longer than mRNA shots. A recent study in animals by researchers at Stanford showed a protein subunit vaccine eliciting high levels of antibodies for more than a year.

“We have to wait for more data, but it’s something to watch and it may turn out to be that there’s a durability advantage,” he said.

Dormitzer insisted the mRNA vaccine market could be disrupted, as manufacturers tried to apply the technology to other diseases, such as influenza. GSK has partnered with German biotech CureVac to develop a next generation mRNA Covid-19 jab, including launching a trial of an Omicron-targeted shot last week, and is using the technology for other viruses.

“There’s nothing magic about mRNA,” he said. “I’ve been involved with mRNA since long before Covid.” 

Phil Dormitzer, head of vaccine research and development at GSK, insisted the mRNA vaccine market could be disrupted

Pfizer and BioNTech declined to comment. Moderna did not respond to a request for comment.

Dormitzer joined GSK to lead the world’s largest vaccine R&D organisation — even though it had lagged far behind his former employer in the race for a Covid-19 shot.

GSK chose to offer its adjuvant — which boosts the efficacy of jabs — to several vaccine makers, the most prominent of which was Sanofi. But mistakes in trials led to delays and the GSK/Sanofi shot has not yet received regulatory approval.

Dormitzer is trying to focus GSK’s vaccine business on the largest markets and those with the most unmet need. The company’s best selling vaccine is Shingrix, for shingles, and it is working on better vaccines for flu. In June, GSK reported phase 3 results showing that the first ever respiratory syncytial virus vaccine offered “exceptional protection”, so Dormitzer is prioritising filing for approval.

He has just completed GSK’s first vaccine acquisition since he arrived, spending up to $2.7bn on US start-up Affinivax, which is developing a pneumococcal vaccine to compete with Pfizer’s blockbuster Prevnar and US Merck’s Vaxneuvance. Dormitzer said it was a “very exciting technology”.

“It seems like an opportunity to really meet the residual quite large unmet need for pneumococcus by making a better vaccine, which by the way, is also easier to make,” he said.

GSK completed the largest European demerger for decades last month, spinning off its consumer joint venture Haleon. The transaction reduced debt at the new slimmed down pharma and vaccines business and gave it a dividend of more than £7bn, as well as a further stake to sell down. The money will be invested in replenishing its pipeline, including through mergers and acquisitions.

Dormitzer said he was always looking for deals. “There are both things that are interesting in their own right, but also supportive technologies that can help other vaccines as well. So it’s a rich environment out there,” he said.

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