Key learnings from COVID-19 vaccine development: Power of cross-industry collaboration and need for ethnic diversity in clinical trials
Elaine O’Hara, chief commercial officer (CCO), North America at Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines division of Sanofi, discussed the partnership approach taken by the global pharma sector to COVID-19 vaccine development, as part of the new Reuters event series, Pharma Leadership: Looking Ahead.
“The industry is doing everything that it can, as quickly as possible, while also preserving safety and efficacy to develop vaccines using cross-industry collaboration. For example, at Sanofi Pasteur, we are using previous development work that we had for a SARS vaccine as part of our goal to unlock a fast path towards a COVID-19 vaccine and we are doing that in collaboration with GSK who are bringing their adjuvant to the table and that enables the vaccine to provide a better immune response during a pandemic situation.
“We have seen other companies across the industry such as Pfizer and BioNTech come together to create the great solution that we have at the moment. Of course, it wasn’t just about collaboration between industry. There was also wonderful collaboration with government, with regulatory authorities."
She was keen to stress, though, that such accelerated development did not involve any skipping of vital process steps:
“Just because the vaccine came to life quickly does not mean corners were cut or that there is any impact on the safety of the vaccine; these were very well characterized clinical programs with thousands of people. We just really took the opportunity, as industry and government, to come together and bring vaccines [to development] that can potentially save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic."
A multi-year fight against the virus is looking like a potential scenario.
“The only way is that we are going to stop this pandemic is if people get vaccinated and we reduce the effect of the virus in every single country globally.”
Economic value of vaccines
Vaccination programs, when done well, save lives, save money and, thus, can help ensure the health of the economy, said O’Hara.
“We have all seen the major economic impact that we have suffered as a result of lockdowns. It has become very political of course; that does really stifle an economy.”
The CCO said it is not just this pandemic that underlines the public health and economic value of vaccines.
“In the US, the Center for Drug Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that, over a 20-year timeframe, vaccines for children have prevented around 740,000 deaths and 21 million hospitalizations. Economically, that translates into [savings of] US$295bn [in terms of societal costs].”
O’Hara’s talk also addressed how Sanofi Pasteur is working to tackle vaccination disparity in the US.
“Flu disparity is alive and well, unfortunately. Flu vaccination rates, as an example, alone, remain below target level across racial and ethnic groups."
She said that fewer than 4 in 10 Black, Hispanic, Native American and Native Alaskan individuals are getting vaccinated. "That is a significant problem.”
Seeing the need for immediate solutions, Sanofi Pasteur partnered with Sustainable Healthy Communities (SHC) to launch a population health initiative called DRIVE - Demonstrating Rising Influenza Vaccine Equity, aimed at improving influenza vaccination rates in underserved, vulnerable communities, she said.
The focus is on working with local community leaders to build trust. DRIVE has already produced a sizable increase in flu immunization rates (between 15–50%) among these populations.
“The other problem that we have, and I think every company is trying to address this, is we don’t often include groups from minority communities in our clinical trials. More and more I think we are all recognizing that making sure we have the appropriate representation from the Black community, from the Hispanic community, in our clinical studies so that we know these drugs and vaccines are safe and effective across the board, is an important next step we all have to take with respect to [developing] future pharmaceuticals and vaccines.”