Drugmaker AstraZeneca said on Thursday that it had secured orders for at least 400m doses of an as yet unproven Covid-19 vaccine being developed with Oxford university, and would begin delivering them in September.
The company said it had also received more than $1bn in funding from the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a subsidiary of the US health department, to develop the coronavirus vaccine.
The UK group is one of several big drugmakers racing to develop a vaccine for the virus, which has killed more than 300,000 people and crippled the global economy.
Although still at an early stage, the Oxford prototype has been one of the world’s fastest-moving potential solutions to combat the spread of the pandemic.
AstraZeneca said earlier this week that it was building a supply chain to manufacture up to 1bn doses of the vaccine, although there is still no guarantee that the vaccine itself will be effective.
The Oxford vaccine began the first phase of clinical testing in healthy volunteers in late April. Earlier this week, the university said preliminary results might not be available till mid-June, when more extensive trials would begin.
The current frontrunner in the global vaccine development race is Moderna of the US, which released some positive results earlier this week, showing that its vaccine was well tolerated by healthy volunteers and appeared to produce the “neutralising antibodies” needed to fight the disease. The Moderna vaccine is based on directly injecting genetic material (RNA) which then kicks the human immune system into action.
The Oxford vaccine works differently. It uses a weakened version of a common cold virus that causes infections in chimpanzees and contains the genetic material of Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. After vaccination, the recipient’s cells make proteins that prime the immune system to attack the virus if it tries to enter the body.
Its development programme will involve a phase-three clinical trial with 30,000 participants, as well as a paediatric trial.
Drugmakers have been racing to come up with a viable vaccine, compressing timelines that usually span over years into months. There remains the possibility no vaccine, including the Oxford one, may be viable.
Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca chief executive, said: “We are so proud to be collaborating with Oxford university to turn their groundbreaking work into a medicine that can be produced on a global scale.”
The support AstraZeneca and Oxford have received from the US could soothe fears of so-called vaccine nationalism — the prospect of drugmakers receiving support from their own governments and enabling the richest nations to develop the strongest inoculation regimes.
The $1bn Barda investment dwarfs the £65.5m which the UK government said on Sunday that it would allocate to the Oxford project, as part of an agreement to “make up to 30m doses available by September for people in the UK” and up to 100m doses altogether.
“It will mean the UK will be the first country to get access to the vaccine, should it be successful,” it said at the time.
But on Thursday, AstraZeneca said it was now engaging with international organisations such as the World Health Organization “for the fair allocation and distribution of the vaccine around the world”.
The company said it was also working with international distribution partners including the Serum Institute of India and promised that it would make the Oxford university vaccine “widely accessible around the world in an equitable manner”.
Adam Barker, an analyst at Shore Capital, said: “With any vaccine, you’re only as strong as your weakest link and so pushing the development of a promising vaccine to protect people globally, also protects you at home.
“Rhetoric is one thing and action is another — so it’s great to see the actions of Barda supporting the global vaccine coverage effort, even if rhetoric in other parts of the world has been more nationalistic.”
Barda has also funded research by Sanofi, of France, into a potential Covid-19 vaccine. Earlier this month, Sanofi chief executive Paul Hudson sparked outrage in France when he told Bloomberg News that the US “has the right to the largest pre-order because it’s invested in taking the risk”.
This earned Mr Hudson a strong rebuke from French president Emmanuel Macron, who said that any vaccine against Covid-19 must be treated as “public good for the world, and not subject to the laws of the market”.
Shares in AstraZeneca fell 0.8 per cent in early trading in London on Thursday.