By Gwladys Fouche

PARIS (Reuters) – French drugmaker Sanofi said it still expected its COVID-19 vaccine to complete phase 3 trial in the first quarter and reported a rise in fourth-quarter sales and earnings on Friday.

The group, which is hoping for a comeback after losing ground in the COVID-19 jab race, also said it was aiming for an increase in its earnings per share in the “low double-digit” in 2022.

Its sales in the three months to December grew 4.1% to 9.99 billion euros ($11.45 billion) while its EPS came in at 1.38 euros, compared with 1.22 euros in the same quarter last year.

For the whole of 2021, its earnings per share rose by 15.5% at constant exchange rates, while the company had guided for a rise of 14%.

Despite being one of the biggest makers of vaccines in the world by sales before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sanofi was beaten by newcomers who used newer mRNA technology to immunize people against coronavirus.

It is instead focusing on efforts with British partner GlaxoSmithKline to develop a COVID-19 vaccine candidate based on the more conventional protein-based approach, where mass trials are ongoing.

The two partners had initially targeted approval in the first half of 2021, which was later delayed to the end of the year and in December, they again pushed back the expected approval to the first quarter of 2022.

On Friday, Sanofi’s chief financial officer said it still expected the vaccine’s phase 3 trial to be completed in the first quarter.

    “There is no update today. We said that it should happen during Q1 of this year,” Jean-Baptiste Chasseloup de Chatillon told reporters.

Consumer goods giant Unilever offered 50 billion pounds last month for the consumer healthcare business of drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline but declined to raise its bid when GSK sought a higher price.

De Chatillon said he expected “some consolidation” in the pharmaceutical sector following this attempt but that Sanofi would not be part of it. Sanofi is planning to separate its own consumer healthcare unit by the end of 2022.

“We are not in that game,” De Chatillon said, adding that the company’s focus was on growing the value of that division.

(The story corrects headline, bullet point, 1st, 8th and 9th paras to show Sanofi expects its vaccine’s phase 3 trial to finish in Q1 (not win approval for vaccine in Q1). Also corrects headline, 1st para to show it did not say vaccine would drive earnings in 2022)

(Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Tomasz Janowski)