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Sanofi is betting big on mRNA vaccines after Moderna, Pfizer see success with COVID-19 shots

A researcher at Sanofi Genzyme in Framingham in 2017. The company on Tuesday announced plans for a new messenger RNA research center in Cambridge.Barry Chin

After the spectacular success of two COVID-19 vaccines that rely on messenger RNA technology, the French drug giant Sanofi said Tuesday it will invest more than $475 million a year to develop vaccines that use the same approach against other infectious diseases, and much of the work will be done in Cambridge.

Sanofi plans to create a vaccines mRNA Center of Excellence that will employ 400 people in Cambridge and Lyon, France. The French pharmaceutical firm, which has about 4,200 employees in Massachusetts, declined to say how many will work in Cambridge at the center. But Sanofi hopes to have at least six potential vaccines to test in clinical trials by 2025 against a range of diseases. The effort is getting underway this summer.


The two-site center is further validation of mRNA technology, a revolutionary scientific approach that Pfizer and Moderna used in vaccines they developed, tested, and deployed barely a year into the pandemic.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, mRNA technologies demonstrated potential to deliver new vaccines faster than ever before,” said Jean-Francois Toussaint, global head of research and development at Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines division of the multinational corporation. The center, he went on, “aims to lead the field in the next chapter of vaccine innovation.”

Sanofi has traditionally been one of the world’s four biggest vaccine makers, along with GSK, Merck, and Pfizer. But Pfizer was the only one to get a coronavirus vaccine cleared for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration, a two-shot vaccine that received its first authorization on Dec. 11.

Cambridge-based Moderna, an upstart biotech founded in 2010, received a similar authorization a week later for its two-shot vaccine. Both were the first mRNA vaccines ever deployed. Johnson & Johnson won FDA authorization in February for a third vaccine that requires only a single shot and uses different technology.


The new center isn’t Sanofi’s first foray into potential mRNA vaccines. In 2018, Sanofi said it was collaborating on such vaccines for infectious diseases with Lexington’s Translate Bio. One of the vaccine candidates from that collaboration, a formulation intended to prevent seasonal flu, entered an early-stage clinical trial a week ago.

Sanofi and Translate collaborated on a mRNA vaccine candidate against COVID-19 that is also in clinical trials. But Sanofi’s chief executive, Paul Hudson, told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper in February that it “will not be ready this year.”

The center is expected to build on the collaboration between Sanofi and Translate and will be funded with about $477 million a year from Sanofi.

“While mRNA won’t be the solution for every infectious disease, its translation into routine prevention could have immense impact for many unmet public health needs,” said Thomas Triomphe, global head of Sanofi Pasteur.

While traditional vaccines carry a dead or weakened virus into the body to stimulate an immune response, mRNA vaccines use custom-made messenger molecules that tell cells to create a viral protein. In the case of COVID-19, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines instruct cells to create the distinctive spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus. Once that happens, the body’s immune system generates antibodies to fend off the disease if the recipient is exposed to the virus.

The new center will ultimately be located in Sanofi’s massive research complex that is under construction in Cambridge Crossing at the intersection of Cambridge, Boston, and Somerville.


Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com.