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[Herald Interview] What COVID-19 means for vaccine makers

Sanofi Pasteur Korea head lays out why 2020 has been pivotal year in history of vaccines

Pascal Robin, general manager of Sanofi Pasteur Korea (Sanofi Pasteur Korea)
Pascal Robin, general manager of Sanofi Pasteur Korea (Sanofi Pasteur Korea)

The aphorism that a crisis can be an opportunity has never struck home so much as it has for vaccine companies in the era of COVID-19.

Not only has the pandemic raised awareness of the role of vaccines in health care, but it also expedited crucial advances in innovative vaccine technologies such as messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA, vaccines. Heightened public interest in individual vaccine firms is another plus.

Speaking to the media for the first time since assuming his role on Aug. 25, vaccine maker Sanofi Pasteur’s new general manager for Korea, Pascal Robin, underlined the significance of preventive medicine in ensuring public health care, as well as how the novel coronavirus pandemic has shifted tectonic plates in the vaccine industry to adjust for quicker research phases.

Building on the base that the crux of vaccine research is finding the right balance between safety and efficacy, Robin said there had been little need for urgency in the past, lest the haste compromise discretion.

But 2020 has been a year of change.


Positive changes brought forth by COVID-19

“In general, developing vaccines takes a decade, a very long time. But now, when we have a tremendous situation emerging with a new virus, I don’t think we want to wait a decade,” Robin said.

“This is why all companies, with Sanofi Pasteur included, mobilized immediately the knowledge, the technical capabilities, to develop a solution. This is also an opportunity to rethink how to speed up the process -- how the comfortable timelines by authorities, by producers, can be challenged to become shorter,” he said.

The Pfizer-BioNTech partnership, for example, was able to produce an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 in under a year since news of the virus first broke. This is the first mRNA vaccine in history to ever receive the US Food and Drug Administration‘s emergency use approval. Moderna is also hot on Pfizer’s heels with an mRNA vaccine that has returned equally strong results from advanced stage clinical studies.

Sanofi Pasteur is not leading the charge against the pandemic, but it, too, is developing a recombinant protein-based vaccine and an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, with projected dateline of release in the second half of 2021.

“MRNA is a newly emerging technology for generating immune response, and the use of it for COVID-19 prevention is an exciting journey as it will open a new era in terms of vaccination. We are happy to see promising outcomes from Pfizer and Moderna. Also, we are willing to contribute and offer Sanofi’s capability,” Robin said.

MRNA is a fresh path everyone is pioneering in their own way. Recombinant vaccine, on the other hand, is an existing platform using Sanofi’s expertise.

“We have influenza vaccines developed via the recombinant protein technology and we are trying to replicate this and utilize in developing the COVID-19 vaccine,” the executive said.

Two hundred million doses of Sanofi Pasteur’s recombinant vaccine, developed in conjunction with GlaxoSmithKline‘s adjuvant, is promised for the global procurement mechanism COVAX Facility. 

Administered by the World Health Organization, COVAX is a platform where vaccines from different producers are to be allocated for the general fight against COVID-19.

“The need for vaccination is huge when we talk about the entire population of more than 7 billion people. The question is how to prioritize,” he said.

The year 2020 has definitely been a pivotal year in terms of public health. Some may say it was a nightmare.

“It is unfortunate that sometimes we recognize importance of vaccines through crisis. As an optimistic person, I would say we can learn lessons from these trying times in terms of health care and prevention,” Robin said.

 
Setting priorities and debunking myths

As the world’s leading supplier of vaccines against influenza and life-threatening diseases, Sanofi Pasteur is well aware of the challenges associated with massive vaccination programs.

“Who are the most at-risk people, and where are the next waves coming from? This is where Sanofi Pasteur is engaged in providing vaccines, including in Korea,” Robin said.

The most vulnerable are first the elderly, Robin said, then the chronically ill, pregnant, children and health care professionals in that order -- last because they have higher exposure to infected people due to the nature of their work.

“When a person is young and robust without underlying medical conditions, the potential fatality from contracting a flu is low. But for the elderly, even if they are in good shape, we might be surprised about the speed at which their general state of health can worsen just by being exposed to the influenza,” Robin said.

The elderly are accountable for 90 percent of total influenza-associated deaths. This is why the elderly population is the highest priority for vaccination for Sanofi Pasteur, according to Robin.

When asked about the danger for senior citizens -- with naturally weakened immune systems -- to receive the vaccine shots, Robin explained it comes down to a popular misconception.

“It’s quite a regular question we get,” he said, “But it is important to know that we are not placing risk by providing solutions for prevention,” Robin said. A vaccination induces an immune response by mimicking a specific infectious agent. The vaccine itself is not intended to put people at risk, but instead to reinforce the immune system in fighting off the disease.



‘Helping Hands’ for homeless

Homeless people who are left outside in the winter are among the most vulnerable, and are often neglected in vaccination campaigns.

With that in mind, Sanofi Pasteur has been running a 10-year-strong corporate social responsibility program called Helping Hands in Korea, through which it annually provides influenza shots to over 4,000 homeless people in Seoul, Busan and Gyeonggi Province.

The homeless are particularly at greater risk for seasonal infectious diseases, as they have limited access to the health care system. Studies have shown that homeless people who die from respiratory diseases such as the flu and pneumonia account for 20 percent of all homeless deaths, Robin said.

“The Helping Hands program is not just about donating vaccines, rather it’s about helping those people in need by providing prevention solutions. Through this program, homeless people feel more recognized and feel closer to the community,” Robin said.

The program is an echo of Sanofi Pasteur’s mission statement, which is to save people from any and all vaccine-preventable diseases.

“Each year, influenza-associated deaths range from 290,000 to 650,000 globally, thus it has massive impacts on health care,” Robin said, “and vaccination is the most cost-efficient and effective way to prevent influenza infection and its complications.”

Vaccination not only protects the inoculated person but also the wider community by cutting the chain of transmission. It is important to receive a flu vaccination every year, Robin said, because the viruses evolve each year and immunity from the previous year‘s vaccine may not last so long as to provide protection in the new year.

Pascal Robin has worked for Sanofi for almost 20 years. He joined the company in 2002 and has developed his expertise in the vaccination ecosystem through roles in both emerging and developed markets.

Immediately prior to heading Sanofi Pasteur Korea, Robin led the Sanofi Pasteur vaccines operations in Romania and Moldova. During his tenure, Sanofi Romania reached the market leader position in the local pharmaceuticals environment while reporting the strongest sales growth of the Sanofi group in the European region.

Robin is a graduate engineer from Icam in France, and holds a degree in space and aeronautics sciences from the University of Stuttgart, Germany.

By Lim Jeong-yeo (kaylalim@heraldcorp.com)

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