Operation Warp Speed is handing out cash at record velocity and this time, the two largest vaccine companies in the world are benefiting.
The Trump administration’s “Manhattan project” for a COVID-19 vaccine has topped its biggest award given only two weeks ago to Novavax, Inc with its latest grant of $2.1 billion to pharmaceutical giant, GlaxoSmithKline, and partner Sanofi Pasteur to “speed up clinical development and manufacturing” of its recombinant vaccine candidate for the novel coronavirus.
The deal clocks in at over $400 million more than the program’s previous investment of $1.6 billion earlier this month. Most of the GSK/Sanofi grant will be used for clinical trials and the rest to “scale-up and delivery” of 100 million vaccine doses destined for the U.S. population. The deal also offers the USG an option to buy a “supply of 500 million doses over the long term.”
This latest infusion of tax-payer money into Big Pharma’s hands by the Trump administration comes on the heels of the rumored failure of an early vaccine candidate. Moderna’s SARS-CoV-2 mRNA-1273 vaccine has received nearly a billion in federal funds, but recent reports of the company’s CMO, Tal Zaks, selling almost all of his shares as the vaccine is set to begin late-stage trials have sparked speculation that the “pre-fusion stabilized Spike protein” vaccine is dead in the water.
Neither Novavax or Moderna, however, have ever had a single product go to market despite years in the business. GSK and Sanofi, in contrast, have plenty. Sanofi produces an FDA-approved flu shot and GSK, producer of some of the most recognizable pharmaceutical brand names like Binaca and Paxil, also produced a flu vaccine for the H1N1 “bird flu” called Pandermix.
Nevertheless, the fact that these large pharmaceutical firms have had some market success doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of the safety of their vaccines. GSK’s Pandermix turned out to induce narcolepsy and after studies confirmed the association between the drug and the chronic sleeping disorder, it has not been used since.
The $2.1 billion is the second award given to the GSK/Sanofi vaccine project. The first came in April via BARDA and preceded the formation of Operation Warp Speed, itself. Trump’s pick to lead the White House’s vaccine-development task force used to run R&D for GlaxoSmithKline and, until recently, was on the board of directors of the Human Vaccines Project – a vaccine acceleration project that has virtually all the vaccine developers in Operation Warp Speed as partners, including Astra-Zeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax.
Sanofi was one of the first pharmaceutical firms to work with HHS on a COVID-19 vaccine and counts on a “long-standing” relationship with its funding arm, BARDA. Prior to its partnership with GSK, Sanofi had struck a $30 million deal with the agency to “quickly advance a potential vaccine candidate.” Then BARDA director, Rick Bright, endorsed Sanofi’s “licensed recombinant vaccine platform.”
In early December of 2019, Bright’s BARDA awarded Sanofi $226 million to expand its “pandemic influenza vaccine production capabilities” in the company’s Swiftwater, Pennsylvania facilities. In a prophetic statement, Bright praised the deal with Sanofi Pasteur by asserting that “the question is not if, but when the next influenza pandemic will occur,” and went on to further warn of the “potentially devastating consequences for public health and the U.S. economy” that such a pandemic might bring.
The profit motive
Rick Bright would eventually be ousted as BARDA director in April after filing a whistleblower complaint against HHS, in which he accused ASPR Robert Kadlec of “inviting violations of federal procurement law” over the awarding of a $21 million contract for a COVID-19 “Pepcid” treatment trial to an associate of one of his advisors, Dr. Michael Callahan. Bright’s struggle with HHS has continued to deepen and has since amended his complaint to include allegations that secretary Alex Azar has continued to retaliate and is “on the war path” against him and trying to sabotage his now diminished role at NIH.
The signs of rampant cronyism coming out of the COVID-19 vaccine development projects like Operation Warp Speed and similar efforts at HHS should be concerning, with situations like Bright’s ouster and firms like Emergent Biosolutions with deep links to the ASPR coming up again and again on vaccine manufacturing contracts.
Sanofi CEO, Paul Hudson, said the quiet part out loud in May when he told Bloomberg that the “U.S. would have initial access to Sanofi’s COVID-19 vaccine—if it works—because the country was the first to invest in the program.” The statement had to be walked back by Sanofi Chairman, Serge Weinberg for obvious reasons. But, given that the U.S. government has decided to trust for-profit corporations to look after our health, no one should really be surprised.
Feature photo | Protesters display placards during a rally at the Sanofi Pasteur office in suburban Taguig city to protest the drug company’s deal with the Government on the controversial anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia, March 5, 2018, east of Manila, Philippines. Bullit Marquez | AP
Raul Diego is a MintPress News Staff Writer, independent photojournalist, researcher, writer and documentary filmmaker.