AstraZeneca has struck two deals to provide 1.3 billion doses of its coronavirus vaccine to low- and middle-income countries. The company says it has agreed to provide these doses at cost and will make no profit from the arrangement.
The vaccine, which it is developing alongside researchers from Oxford University, is among the most promising of dozens of possible candidates being developed around the world. It is currently in advanced human clinical trials.
The new agreements follow on earlier deals AstraZeneca struck with the U.S. government to supply 300 million doses of the vaccine and with the U.K. government to provide it with 100 million doses. Shipment is expected to start in September or October.
Those deals raised concerns that wealthy nations might try to monopolize supplies of vital COVID-19 vaccines and treatments for their own populations, leaving little for the developing nations where a large percentage of the world’s population lives.
Poorer nations also can’t afford to pay for expensive vaccines and treatments, so AstraZeneca says it has agreed to provide the doses at cost.
“Our goal is not to leave anyone behind, and we will keep working very hard to make sure this vaccine is rapidly and widely available to everyone around the world,” said AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot during a press conference Thursday.
The new deals include an agreement with two global vaccine organizations, which will see them spending $750 million to enable 300 million doses of the vaccine to be produced and distributed to places with the most need, starting by the end of the year.
Richard Hatchett, the chief executive officer of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), one of the two vaccine organizations, called the deal with AstraZeneca “groundbreaking.”
He said that CEPI was taking an unprecedented risk paying for a manufacturing program while a vaccine was still undergoing clinical trials. The idea is to have doses of the vaccine already in production when the clinical trial results are announced, so that if the trial is successful—and if global regulators grant emergency approval—the vaccine can begin shipping immediately.
CEPI is a foundation funded by both governments and global charities that finances vaccines against emerging infectious diseases. It is leading the effort on vaccine development and manufacturing. The other organization involved in the deal is Gavi, another public-private alliance dedicated to vaccine development, which will be responsible for setting up a distribution process for the vaccine.
The money for the deal is being provided by a fund set up by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization that is designed to ensure low- and middle-income countries have fair access to COVID-19 drugs.
Separately, the Serum Institute of India, a private company in India that makes vaccines, has agreed to a licensing arrangement with AstraZeneca to produce 1 billion doses for India and other low-income countries, with 400 million doses to be delivered by year-end. No dollar figure was given for the value of that deal.
Soriot said AstraZeneca had secured manufacturing capacity for an additional 300 million doses and was involved in ongoing discussions with global health bodies about how those would be distributed. This bring the company’s total COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing capability to 2 billion doses, he said.
The drug company CEO declined to say how optimistic he was that the vaccine’s clinical trials would succeed.
“With this sort of pandemic and the tremendous impact it has on people, the economy, etc., you can’t second-guess what is going to happen,” he said. “You just have to commit—that is what you have to do in our industry. You make a bet on something and commit. That is what we are doing.”
The AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine is considered to be one of the most promising in the world—and is at the most advanced stage of clinical trials—because it is based on a similar vaccine that Oxford researchers developed to treat another coronavirus, the one that causes Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS).
He said that one problem AstraZeneca and the Oxford University researchers were having is that infection rates have fallen so quickly in countries were the pandemic first struck, that it has been difficult to find enough people to enroll in the vaccine trials in areas where infection rates remain high enough that the scientists can tell if the vaccine will actually prevent people from becoming infected.
“We are chasing the disease in many parts of the world,” Soriot said. He said that this might delay how quickly the company can get a valid clinical trial result and, if it is successful, how fast a vaccine can be distributed. But he said the clinical trial still seemed to be on track to be able to announce a result in August.