Home » Business » GlaxoSmithKline stumbled with COVID-19 shots. Now it's facing an exodus of US talent and an uncertain future as the world's vaccine leader.
GlaxoSmithKline stumbled with COVID-19 shots. Now it's facing an exodus of US talent and an uncertain future as the world's vaccine leader.
The world’s largest vaccine business has been on the sidelines of the pandemic response.
GSK is facing an exodus of US vaccine scientists, with several dozen leaving in the past year.
Former GSK employees expressed frustration with the company’s bureaucracy and pandemic response.
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On a mild day in December 2016, GlaxoSmithKline executives snipped an orange ribbon, ushering in what they hoped would be a new chapter for the pharmaceutical giant.
GSK had just helped the world respond to the viral scares of H1N1 and Ebola, and its leaders envisioned growing their swanky vaccine-research center in suburban Rockville, Maryland, into a biopreparedness powerhouse, equipped with the research talent and manufacturing might to stop pandemics in their tracks.
Located near the power center of the US government and major federal research centers like the National Institutes of Health, the GSK team had pitched a proposal to build a biopreparedness organization to respond to pathogens, such as the coronavirus. The plan flopped in 2017 because the US repeatedly balked at funding it.
Still, the Rockville site went forward with more than 400 employees focused on projects including GSK’s blockbuster shingles shot, Shingrix, and an experimental messenger RNA (mRNA) platform.
Then, three years after the Rockville ribbon cutting, reports began to trickle in of mysterious cases of pneumonia in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Soon, scientists would identify the cause as a new coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2. Within weeks, the virus had spread globally. By early March, much of the world had shut down in an attempt to halt the spread.
It was the kind of event the Rockville center was built for. And GSK, a multinational pharma company based in the UK, was sitting on some of the most promising technology for rapidly responding to viruses.
A Novartis team that joined GSK in a 2015 deal had been working for years on an mRNA platform, similar to those of Moderna and BioNTech. GSK also had its hands on chimpanzee-adenovirus technology, an approach ultimately used in a COVID-19 vaccine designed by University of Oxford scientists with AstraZeneca.
But as the novel coronavirus emerged, GSK, the world’s largest vaccine business by revenue, was caught flatfooted.
GSK hasn’t developed a coronavirus shot
Insider spoke with Roger Connor, GSK’s president of global vaccines, and with former GSK employees and an analyst to understand how GSK fell behind in the vaccine race — and what effect it might have on the vaunted pharma giant’s future. (The ex-employees spoke on condition of anonymity so that they could speak candidly about their former employer.)
In the early months of the pandemic, researchers at Rockville requested that GSK start using its mRNA technology to work on a vaccine, two of the former Rockville employees said. That request was denied because its tech wasn’t ready for prime time, Connor said.
To this day, GSK’s vaunted vaccine unit has yet to develop a coronavirus shot, losing out to rivals with far less experience in the industry, despite having its hand on similar technologies.
The first two COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the US were developed by Moderna and the team of Pfizer and BioNTech, and both were mRNA-based shots. The Oxford-AstraZeneca shot is in use around the world as well.
Rockville has seen widespread departures. At least three dozen employees, many of them key scientists and leaders, have departed from the center since the pandemic began, in March 2020.
“You can’t get away from the fact that our overall outcome has been disappointing,” Connor told Insider in an interview.
The Rockville site makes up a fraction of the $90 billion pharma giant’s world-spanning empire of 94,000 employees, which includes about 17,000 working on vaccines.
But the tensions and disappointment found in its labs speak to the larger struggle facing GSK in keeping pace with faster-moving biotechs such as Moderna, BioNTech, Novavax, and others.
Six ex-GSK employees described an organization undergoing a major restructuring focused on growing its existing vaccine business and not looking to disrupt that work by taking a gamble on a new pathogen. Three of them said a stifling bureaucracy and leadership’s lack of vision for vaccine research were key motivators for their departures.
Two other ex-employees said GSK’s reticence on diving into COVID-19 vaccine research was understandable given the newness of GSK’s mRNA platform and the company’s previous effort to craft an Ebola shot, which ultimately failed to lead to an approved vaccine.