U.S. raises ante in vaccine race with $1.2 billion for Astra
The U.S. threw its weight behind one of the fastest-moving experimental solutions to the coronavirus pandemic, pledging as much as $1.2 billion to AstraZeneca to help make the University of Oxford's covid vaccine.
Beset by criticism of his response to the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump is pushing his way toward the front of the line to secure a shot to protect Americans from the outbreak and allow business to resume. The U.S. has backed projects underway at Johnson & Johnson, Moderna Inc. and France's Sanofi, fueling concerns that other parts of the world could fall behind.
As companies and governments pour money into development of a vaccine, seen as a key to lifting lockdowns that have crippled economies globally, stock markets are gyrating on developments in research labs. Astra, Sanofi and others have secured funding even as their candidates for a protective jab are still in trials, with no guarantee of success.
The U.S. "is making multiple major investments in developing and manufacturing promising vaccines long before they're approved so that a successful vaccine will reach the American people without a day wasted," Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement.
The funding for AstraZeneca is part of the Operation Warp Speed effort to secure vaccines for the U.S., according to the statement. The country expects 300 million doses to be available as early as October.
The U.K. drugmaker received the money from the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and said it has secured capacity to make 1 billion doses.
The U.S. agency has also provided $30 million for Sanofi's covid vaccine and $226 million for its work to counter pandemic influenza. A covid vaccine developed by the French company would probably go to Americans first, Chief Executive Officer Paul Hudson said last week in an interview with Bloomberg News.
Sanofi said later that it would make the shot available everywhere. While the absence of a European counterpart to BARDA has slowed efforts to secure supplies, Hudson said the French company is in talks with several governments on possible arrangements.
Dozens of other vaccine projects are underway around the world, from the U.S. to China, drawing in major pharma giants, university labs and others. Moderna shares jumped earlier this week after the U.S. biotech revealed positive early results from its experimental vaccine. President Xi Jinping of China has said any successful vaccine developed there will be made available as a global public good.
Although it's helpful that countries like the U.S. are stepping up and contributing to vaccine development, the only way to move on from the pandemic is to ensure equal access to a jab, said David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
It's "important that all countries have equal risks and at the same time equal response mechanisms so that travel and trade can begin, and that can only be accomplished if everyone has the same level of protection," Heymann said.
Supplying the U.K. with a vaccine will be a priority for AstraZeneca, CEO Pascal Soriot has said. Astra plans to make as many as 30 million doses available in Britain by September and has committed to delivering 100 million this year.
Astra said it's working with groups including the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, on making sure the vaccine is allocated fairly. The company said it has supply agreements for 400 million doses.
"Several more agreements are expected to deliver AstraZeneca's commitment to ensure global access," a spokesman said in an email. "These agreements are happening in parallel in order to ensure broad and equitable supply of the vaccine throughout the world at no profit during the pandemic."
The shares fell 1.4% early Thursday in London.
The U.S. funding will support a final-stage clinical trial with 30,000 participants, as well as tests in children, AstraZeneca said.
Some doubts have been raised about the potential effectiveness of the Oxford vaccine after early results in monkeys were released. While the shot may have protected animals against severe infections, the results were weak compared with those of a test of a vaccine under development by Sinovac Biotech in Beijing, said William Haseltine, a former Harvard University HIV researcher, in a blog post.
The comparison is inapt for studies carried out with different types of vaccines given in varying doses, in monkeys who were infected with different levels of virus, the Oxford researchers said in a statement. "In the end it is the impact on clinical disease that matters," they said.
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