Sanofi commits $476M a year to mRNA vaccine center in race to expand tech beyond COVID-19

Sanofi is set to invest €400 million ($476 million) a year in a dedicated vaccines mRNA Center of Excellence. The commitment is intended to establish Sanofi as a front-runner in the race to develop mRNA vaccines against a wide range of infectious diseases. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic validating mRNA vaccines in the prevention of infectious diseases, a clutch of companies including Moderna and Pfizer is now looking to expand use of the technology beyond the coronavirus. Sanofi, which has access to mRNA technology through its partnership with Translate Bio, took an early lead over its rivals in flu last week by starting a phase 1 clinical trial.

Now, Sanofi has established an mRNA Center of Excellence that will bring together 400 employees working across sites in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Lyon, France. The teams span R&D, digital, and chemistry, manufacturing and controls.

By forming the center and backing it with €400 million a year, Sanofi aims to accelerate development of mRNA vaccines. The goal is to have at least six candidates in the clinic by 2025 and compete with other companies to disrupt the vaccine industry.

“This massive new investment clearly puts us in the race to develop next-generation vaccines where mRNA technologies can have greatest impact. While mRNA won’t be the solution for every infectious disease, its translation into routine prevention could have immense impact for many unmet public health needs,” Thomas Triomphe, global head of Sanofi Pasteur, said in a statement. 

Sanofi has identified areas that mRNA vaccines need to improve if the protective power and speed of response demonstrated in the pandemic is to be brought to more infectious diseases and age ranges. Jean-Francois Toussaint, global head of R&D at Sanofi Pasteur, picked thermostability and improved tolerability as enhancements that are needed to unlock the potential of mRNA.

In the pandemic setting, countries have had to cope with the cold-chain requirements of the mRNA vaccines, but the storage conditions could be a barrier to use in the routine immunization schedule. Similarly, while most adults have accepted the tolerability profile of mRNA vaccines in the context of the threat of SARS-CoV-2—and work to study the effects of the jabs in children as young as six months is underway—reduced reactogenicity will be beneficial as developers try to enter new indications. 

Sanofi is far from the only company working to develop mRNA vaccines for infectious diseases other than COVID-19. Moderna disclosed three flu vaccines in January and plans to get into the clinic later this year, while Pfizer has also expressed an interest in using mRNA to protect against influenza.

For Sanofi, the ratcheting up of mRNA work is both a defensive and offensive play. Sanofi’s vaccine unit generated sales of almost €6 billion last year. That sum, which amounted to around one-sixth of all the company’s sales, could be threatened by mRNA vaccines against influenza and other infectious diseases covered by existing Sanofi products based on different technologies. 

This also echoes a very similar approacg by its rival-cum-partner GlaxoSmithKline, which this year teamed up with German biotech CureVac and its mRNA vaccine tech, also saying at its annual R&D event earlier this month that, where mRNA vaccine tech can be used, it will be moving toward using that, and away from traditional approaches, namely in flu.