GSK vaccine chief aims to break dominance of mRNA injections

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GSK and Sanofi are aiming to end the dominance of BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, after early data showed their vaccine had fewer side effects and lasted longer, according to GSK’s new head of vaccines.

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

“COVID is important. He’s not leaving. It changes,” he said. “As we move into the late stage of the pandemic and the post-pandemic era, other things become important: tolerability, temperature stability, practical cold chain and durability.”

Preliminary data suggest that such vaccines may have fewer side effects and last longer than mRNA injections. A recent animal study by Stanford researchers showed that a protein subunit vaccine elicited high levels of antibodies for more than a year.

“We have to wait for more data, but it’s something to watch and there may be a sustainability benefit,” he said.

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

“There’s nothing magic about mRNA,” he said. “I was involved in mRNA long before Covid.”

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

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

Dormitzer has joined GSK to lead the world’s largest vaccine R&D organization – even though it was far behind its former employer in the race for the Covid-19 vaccine.

GSK chose to offer its adjuvant – which enhances the effectiveness of injections – to several vaccine manufacturers, the largest of which was Sanofi. But mistakes in the trials have led to delays and the GSK/Sanofi vaccine has yet to receive regulatory approval.

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

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

“This seems like an opportunity to really address the fairly large residual unmet need for pneumococci by making a better vaccine, which by the way is also easier to make,” he said.

GSK last month completed the biggest European spin-off in decades, splitting off its consumer joint venture Haleon. The deal reduced the new lean pharma and vaccines company’s debt and gave it a dividend of more than £7bn, as well as an additional stake to sell. The money will be invested in rebuilding its pipeline, including through mergers and acquisitions.

Dormitzer said he was always looking for offers. “There are both interesting things in themselves, but also supporting technologies that can also help other vaccines. So it’s a rich environment there,” he said.

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