Science

Oxford AstraZeneca results open up Covid vaccine to developing countries


The efficacy of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine opens the way for a cheap and more easily transportable vaccine to be made available to some of the world’s poorest countries.

Unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, AstraZeneca’s experimental vaccine is already a part of Covax, the global initiative which hopes to distribute some 2bn doses to 92 low- and middle-income countries at a maximum cost of $3 a dose.

As part of the initiative, AstraZeneca announced during the summer it would make 1.3bn doses of its then untried vaccine available at cost to ensure that any vaccine was not cornered by the world’s wealthiest countries.

The arrangement follows deals both with Covax and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi), which agreed to help fund AstraZeneca’s vaccine manufacturing programme even while it was still being developed.

Under the arrangement the Serum Institute of India will produce 1bn doses under licence from AstraZeneca for India and low-income countries with the aim of producing 400m doses by the end of the year.

Even before the interim results of the vaccine’s phase 3 trials were announced it was suggested that the Indian government would rapidly follow any emergency use authorisation issued by the UK government to grant its own emergency use authorisation.

“We have started manufacturing the product,” the Serum Institute’s executive director, Suresh Jadhav, said over the weekend, adding that the institute could produce 50m-60m doses of the vaccine candidate developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University every month from January, with 80m-100m doses already produced.

The promising results from AstraZeneca come at a time of mounting concern over how to distribute the vaccine equitably.

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With an estimate that over 17bn doses may be required globally, and with the risk some may be spoiled, the world’s wealthiest countries have used their economic clout to over-procure potential vaccines, often from multiple candidates from the over 300 in development, to push to the front of the queue.

Countries in the developing world, by contrast, have been left behind, lacking the influence of blocs such as the European Union.

Another advantage of the AstraZeneca vaccine, as opposed to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which are based on mRNA technology and require ultra-cold-storage capacity chains – similar to that required for the Ebola vaccine successfully used in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – is that it can be stored at more normal temperatures and is expected to last longer.

The vaccine can be transported under “normal refrigerated conditions” of 2-8C (36-46F), AstraZeneca said.

By comparison, Pfizer plans to distribute its vaccine using specially designed “thermal shippers” that use dry ice to maintain temperatures of -70C.

AstraZeneca has said it will immediately apply for early approval of the vaccine where possible, and it will seek an emergency use listing from the World Health Organization, so it can make the vaccine available in low-income countries.

Pascal Soriot, the chief executive of the drug firm, said on Monday that the Oxford vaccine’s simpler supply chain and AstraZeneca’s commitment to provide it on a nonprofit basis during the pandemic meant it would be affordable and available to people around the world.

He said: “Today marks an important milestone in our fight against the pandemic. This vaccine’s efficacy and safety confirm that it will be highly effective against Covid-19 and will have an immediate impact on this public health emergency. Furthermore, the vaccine’s simple supply chain and our no-profit pledge and commitment to broad, equitable and timely access means it will be affordable and globally available, supplying hundreds of millions of doses on approval.”

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