GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) is ramping up production of its pandemic adjuvant, an additive that boosts the effectiveness of  vaccines. The U.K.-based drugmaker expects to be able to produce 1 billion doses of the adjuvant in 2021 for use with an array of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.

This same adjuvant was used in the last flu pandemic, and, in theory, it should work with a variety of protein-based vaccines. Of course, we'll have to wait for clinical trial data to know for sure that it has the desired effect when used with vaccines for SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

When used in conjunction with weaker vaccines, an adjuvant can increase the immune response, producing stronger and longer-lasting immunity. For vaccines that are sufficiently effective on their own, an adjuvant can reduce the amount of vaccine protein required per dose. In a pandemic, that can be a huge benefit, allowing significantly more people to be protected by a relatively limited supply of vaccine while manufacturers work to ramp up their production.

Hands giving an injection into a shoulder

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GlaxoSmithKline has partnerships with several companies that are developing SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidates and is in ongoing discussions with potential additional collaborators.

The company has already started manufacturing the adjuvant in quantity even though so far, no protein-based COVID-19 vaccines in development have reached the stage where they've produced human clinical trial data. A phase 1 study of Moderna's (NASDAQ:MRNA) mRNA-1273 COVID-19 vaccine has produced data, but that's an mRNA-based vaccine, not protein-based, so GlaxoSmithKline's adjuvant likely wouldn't be a useful additive to it.

Going to heavy production now could cost GlaxoSmithKline some money if it turns out its adjuvant isn't helpful with any of the vaccines that it's tested in, or if the vaccines that prove most effective (and are therefore widely used) are not protein-based.

Still, the decision to ramp up production seems like a reasonable risk to take, given its previous success with the 2017-2018 pandemic flu vaccine and considering the unprecedented need for effective responses to COVID-19. The company is also talking with governments and global institutions about the possibility that they might help fund its production of the adjuvant.