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Glaxo pushes for bird flu vaccine by '06
CEO wants Glaxo to be "most intensive R&D company in the world."
October 28, 2005: 2:37 PM EDT
By Aaron Smith, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - GlaxoSmithKline chief executive officer Jean-Pierre Garnier said on Thursday that he intends to complete tests for a bird flu vaccine within the next two years.

Garnier, in a third quarter earnings teleconference with analysts, said GlaxoSmithKline (up $0.97 to $52.31, Research) would begin preclinical, or the earliest stages, of testing for a bird flu vaccine in 2006. Depending on the success of the trials, Garnier said the company could submit the vaccine to regulators by the end of 2006 or 2007.

Garnier also said that GlaxoSmithKline is continuing to ramp up its research and development expenditures so that it doesn't fall into the same trap as competitors who face weak pipelines as blockbusters go off patent.

"This is a very difficult game to discover new products, as you know," said Garnier, who said that GlaxoSmithKline has doubled its pipeline of experimental drugs over the last four years. "We truly want to be the most R&D intensive company in the world."

British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, the largest pharmaceutical company in Europe, reported a 10 percent jump in drug sales for the third quarter, and said that it increased R&D spending by 15 percent in the third quarter, compared to the same period last year.

The drug maker produces Relenza, one of two anti-virals on the market for bird flu, also known as H5N1. Swiss drug giant Roche produces the other bird flu anti-viral, Tamiflu.

Anti-virals are used to fight influenza after infection, while vaccines are used to prevent infection. Governments around the world are scrambling to stockpile vaccines and anti-virals that treat or prevent bird flu, which has killed more than 60 people in Asia, with a mortality rate of about 50 percent. Bird flu has also been detected in Russia, Croatia, Romania and a bird from South America.

Humans catch H5N1 from direct exposure to infected birds and it is not transmitted from person to person. However, scientists recently discovered that the influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people in 1918 emerged in birds, sparking fears that H5N1 could mutate into a virus that is transmitted among humans.

Supply and demand

Like Tamiflu, the Relenza supply has been outstripped by demand. Garnier, who recently met with President Bush to discuss vaccine production, said that he also met with a top health official from a country he would not name who offered to buy his entire supply "within two minutes" of the start of the meeting.

"Once I mentioned how much Relenza I was going to [manufacture] in '05, he said, 'I'll buy it all,'" said Garnier, who would not provide specifics of Relenza's capacity. Garnier also said that some governments have offered GlaxoSmithKline fees to reserve capacities of bird flu drugs that haven't been manufactured yet.

Vaccines are considered by many analysts and health officials to be more effective than anti-virals, because they could prevent a pandemic before it happens. There are no FDA-approved bird flu vaccines available, though the U.S. government has said it would sidestep the usual regulatory requirements to stockpile a drug that could prevent an outbreak, be it from bird flu or bioterrorism.

Out of the $3.9 billion allotted for anti-pandemic stockpiles, the U.S. government paid $97 million to French drug maker Sanofi-Aventis (up $0.05 to $39.54, Research) to ramp up manufacturing capacity for its experimental bird flu vaccine. This is the largest contract issued by the U.S. government for a bird flu vaccine, but not the most recent. On Thursday, the government awarded Chiron Corp. (up $0.82 to $43.48, Research) a $62.5 million contract to develop a bird flu vaccine, according to a company statement.

For more than 30 years, vaccines have been produced inside chicken eggs. GlaxoSmithKline and other companies are researching ways to avoid the lengthy egg process by growing vaccines in cell-based or tissue-based cultures. However, Garnier said he was "cynical" about reaching landmark developments in tissue-based vaccine production.

"Egg-based technology is not going to be obsolete for the next few years," said Garnier. "We're talking years before tissue cells take over cell-based technology, in my opinion."

To read about a biotech that is breeding chickens to lay drug-laced eggs, click here.  Top of page

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