GlaxoSmithKline is taking aim at a virus that causes serious lung infections and kills tens of thousands of children each year, hoping to replicate the success of its last blockbuster vaccine.
Experimental shots targeting respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, are the top pipeline priority for Glaxo's vaccines unit, Emmanuel Hanon, its research and development head, said in an interview. Glaxo plans to move those vaccines into the final stage of testing by the end of 2020, he said.
"This represents a massive opportunity, provided we can deliver," Hanon said.
Glaxo isn't the only company racing to deliver an RSV vaccine, a goal that has eluded scientists for about half a century. Drugmakers including Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi are also working on potential shots against the virus, which is estimated to cause as many as 200,000 deaths a year across the globe.
The vaccine is one of the keys to the British drugmaker's ambitions to build on Shingrix, the shingles shot forecast to generate sales of about $1.8 billion this year. While Glaxo's pharma unit garners most of the attention, vaccines are set to play a bigger role as the company moves ahead with plans to separate its consumer health division.
Glaxo is keen to expand in the realm of therapeutic vaccines, used after an infection occurs, and to speed up the development of new shots, a journey that can take 15 years, Hanon said. The company sees an opportunity to do it in half as much time partly by harnessing new technologies that enhance the immune system's response to vaccines.
"That's our ambition," he said. "Fifteen years is too long."
Vaccines have already helped Glaxo counter generic competition for Advair, the company's aging mega-drug for asthma. The unit's sales climbed 25% in the first half of the year to $3.8 billion (3.1 billion pounds). The drugmaker is providing a vaccines update at an event for investors Thursday. Glaxo shares rose 1.8% in London trading.
"The business is of increasing significance for them," said Emmanuel Papadakis, an analyst at Barclays in London. Investors will likely focus on its plans to expand Shingrix capacity and "the next story on the pipeline side."
Drugmakers appear to be making progress in pursuit of an RSV shot. Sanofi's new Chief Executive Officer Paul Hudson earlier this month cited the French company's experimental vaccine as one of its most promising opportunities.
Almost all children get an RSV infection by the time they are two years old, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While it mostly causes mild, cold-like illnesses, it can lead to more serious problems, such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis, infections of the lungs and airways.
Among therapeutic vaccines, Glaxo is also developing a product to prevent a lung disease called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from worsening due to bacteria. The company hopes to have data to show the vaccine works by the second half of next year, Hanon said.