The WHO normally tells manufacturers of the recommended strains to include in their flu vaccines in February. However, this year it delayed the decision on one strain, H3N2, by one month.
Delaying the decision gave the WHO more time to assess the emergence of a distinct form of H3N2, potentially resulting in flu vaccines being more effective than if it had made the decision in February. However, the delay will affect shipments from Sanofi.
Speaking on a second-quarter results conference call, Olivier Brandicourt, CEO at Sanofi, said, “I want to make you aware that the roughly one month delay in strain selection by the WHO has impacted the timing of our flu deliveries. Consequently, we expect our flu vaccine sales to be significantly weighted towards the fourth quarter.”
The WHO acknowledged the risk of delayed vaccine shipments when it made the deferred decision in March. At that time, the WHO hoped to minimize the risk of delayed supplies “as much as possible” by “working intensively” with partners to make the highest yielding viruses available to flu vaccine manufacturers.
Brandicourt’s comments are the latest evidence that the WHO’s efforts have failed to prevent delays to vaccine supplies. Last month, The Telegraph reported that British health officials had asked doctors and pharmacists to check when supplies would be delivered amid concerns that the start of the annual immunization program may be delayed by up to two months.
Doctors in the UK typically start offering flu vaccinations to at-risk groups of people in September. This year, there are concerns that some doctors will have to wait until late November to receive the 2019-2020 vaccine.
The forecast shipment schedule is in line with that shared by Sanofi. As it stands, Sanofi expects to start partial shipments around the start of September and continue sending out stock until the end of November.
News of the delayed shipments was a rare downbeat note in Sanofi’s second-quarter vaccine results. Sales at the unit increased 25% in the quarter on the back of fast-rising demand for pediatric vaccines and booster shots.
In identifying the drivers of growth, Sanofi singled out Chinese demand for Pentaxim, a pediatric vaccine that protects against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, poliomyelitis and invasive infections due to the Haemophilus influenzae type b bacterium. Sanofi said sales of the vaccine in the US, where it is branded as Pentacel, were also up in the second quarter.
While vaccines were a key growth driver for Sanofi in the second quarter, a shift in its prioritization of R&D investments means other modalities may play a bigger role in the future.
In December 2017, vaccines accounted for 8% of Sanofi’s research pipeline and 19% of its clinical-stage assets. By July 2019, the figures had fallen to 7% and 14%, in large part because of Sanofi’s rising interest in developing specialty care medicines.