Cobra Biologics is also working on a potential vaccine for the coronavirus in Keele, Britain, April 30, 2020. Picture: REUTERS/CARL RECINE
Cobra Biologics is also working on a potential vaccine for the coronavirus in Keele, Britain, April 30, 2020. Picture: REUTERS/CARL RECINE

Paris/London/Zurich/Geneva — AstraZeneca has agreed to make an experimental coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University researchers as the race heats up for the key to halting the pandemic.

The company is one of dozens around the world that have joined the competition, with the Trump administration preparing an effort to make shots available for Americans by year’s end. Astra’s tie-up with Oxford shows how developers are aiming to manufacture vaccines even before they’ve cleared human tests.

Astra’s goal is to have the capacity to produce 100-million doses by the end of the year.

As the coronavirus shuts down businesses and industries, countries are vying for a vaccine to help them get workers back in place and economies restarted. Oxford’s swift work offers a glimmer of hope in the UK, already beset by thousands of Covid-19 deaths and a continuing lockdown.

“This is moving very fast and we are working on the details,” Astra CEO Pascal Soriot said by phone. “The priority is to supply the UK, and then the bigger challenge is to scale up to supply the world.”

The experimental shot could reach late-stage trials by the middle of the year, ranking it as one of the most advanced vaccine projects. Astra said on Thursday it would join in the development as well as manufacture and distribute the product.

The vaccine developed by a team headed by Oxford’s Sarah Gilbert entered human testing last week. It’s one of at least 70 projects under development against the new virus, Sars-CoV-2. As the number of coronavirus infections globally exceeds 3-million, the pressure is growing to come up with solutions to the contagion.

Astra was one of several companies that were in discussions with Oxford, according to Soriot. The maker of the FluMist nasal spray vaccine, Astra hasn’t been a big player in the market for vaccines. However, the company has huge capacity for making biotechnology products that are produced in cells.

The vaccine will be made in the UK as well as other countries, Soriot said. The accelerated timeline is “a stretch target”, but he is optimistic about the vaccine’s success. “I think the probability it will work is pretty high. The technology has been validated, it’s been tested in monkeys with very good results and now it has to be validated in humans. We’ll have a better sense of this by June or July.”

The Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” programme will pull together private pharmaceutical companies, government agencies and the military to try to cut the development time for a vaccine by as much as eight months, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Affordable shot

The Oxford team’s vaccine candidate is a single shot that’s been administered to 320 people so far, who reported mostly flu-like symptoms, headaches and arm soreness. AstraZeneca didn’t provide financial details of the agreement.

Astra shares rose as much as 2.8% to 8,438p, the highest level in more than two decades, in London trading.

GlaxoSmithKline, Astra’s UK rival and one of the world’s biggest vaccine makers, has joined forces with France’s Sanofi on separate development work. Astra is also working with GSK, the UK government and the University of Cambridge on making tests.

For the vaccine, Astra plans to rely on contract manufacturing organisations and other partners globally while ramping up its own production capacity, Soriot said. Based on the agreement with the US government and Oxford, Astra will supply the vaccine at cost, according to Soriot.

Pfizer

Pfizer, the US pharmaceutical giant, aims to make 10-20-million doses of a coronavirus vaccine it is developing with Germany’s BioNtech by the end of 2020 for emergency use, depending on trial results, the US drugmaker’s vaccines head said on Thursday.

The companies, which are developing four vaccine candidates, have already dosed the first humans in Germany and hope to begin a US trial soon, pending approval by regulators.

Pfizer, BioNtech and numerous other companies and scientists are in a global race to develop a vaccine for the virus, since there are currently no approved treatments and therapies under study have shown mixed results. 

Making millions of doses available within just months, as Pfizer hopes, would mark almost unprecedented speed for a new vaccine and require swift regulatory action even for emergency use.

“Of course we need to see and wait to see how the vaccine’s efficacy and safety is demonstrated, hopefully in the coming months,” Nanette Cocero, global head of Pfizer Vaccines, said on a conference call organised by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA).

“But assuming that is demonstrated, we are looking to ramp up manufacturing rather quickly to have around 10-million to 20-million doses by the end of this year, which are expected to then, of course, be used in an emergency type of setting.”

Other drugmakers testing possible Covid-19 vaccines include Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax, as well as smaller projects such as at Bern’s Inselspital hospital in Switzerland.

Countries are risking billions on projects that may never prove successful, out of desperation to find a preventive treatment for the virus that has killed about 230,000 people and hamstrung the global economy.

Bloomberg, Reuters