AstraZeneca says COVID-19 'vaccine for the world' can be 90% effective
LONDON (Reuters) - AstraZeneca said on Monday its COVID-19 vaccine could be as much as 90% effective, giving the world's fight against the global pandemic a new weapon, cheaper to make, easier to distribute and faster to scale-up than rivals.
The British drugmaker said it will have as many as 200 million doses by the end of 2020, around four times as many as U.S. competitor Pfizer. Seven hundred million doses could be ready globally as soon as the end of the first quarter of 2021.
"This means we have a vaccine for the world," said Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford University vaccine group that developed the drug.
The vaccine on average prevented 70% of COVID-19 cases in late-stage trials in Britain and Brazil but the success rate rose to 90% if the vaccine was administered as a half dose followed by a full dose. The efficacy was 62% if the full dose was given twice, as it was for most study participants.
No serious safety events were confirmed, the company said.
AstraZeneca's shares fell 4%, on track for their worst daily performance in six-months, as investors perceived the efficacy data as disappointing compared with rivals. Pfizer and Moderna, which reported that their vaccines prevented around 95% of cases, had set the bar for success sky-high.
The AstraZeneca shot does, however, have some advantages over offerings from U.S. rivals.
The drug's cost to governments works out at just a few dollars a shot, a fraction of the price of shots from Pfizer and Moderna, which use a more unconventional technology.
It can also be transported and stored at normal fridge temperatures, which proponents say would make it easier to distribute, especially in poor countries, than Pfizer's, which needs to be shipped and stored at -70C.
The faster roll-out means both rich and poor countries that had been drawing up plans to ration vaccines can distribute them more widely, helping to eventually halt the social and economic disruption of a pandemic that has killed 1.4 million people.
"The bulk of the vaccine rollout programme will be in January, February, March. And we hope that sometime after Easter things will be able to start to get back to normal," said Matt Hancock, health secretary of Britain which has pre-ordered 100 million doses for its 67 million people.
In poor countries, where the logistics of distributing rival vaccines posed a bigger challenge, the effect of a cheaper and easier alternative could be even more pronounced. Zahid Maleque, health minister of Bangladesh, which is buying in 30 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine made in India, called the findings "really good news".
"The big advantage of having the vaccine is that it can be stored, transported and handled at 2-8 degrees Celsius, and we have that storage facility," he said.
The World Health Organization's chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan called the results "encouraging" and said the health body looked forward to seeing the data.
"We welcome the efforts of Oxford/AZ to make the vaccine affordable and easy to store, which will be good for countries and people everywhere."
"WE'LL BE A LOT HAPPIER"
Nevertheless, there was criticism of AstraZeneca's findings.
Analysts from SVB Leerink, a healthcare-focused investment bank, said AstraZeneca had not yet disclosed enough information about safety events that had forced it to temporarily put a study on hold in the United States.
Leerink noted that only a small number of people had received the smaller first dose. Of 131 cases of COVID-19 in the study, researchers did not say how many had received the smaller initial dose to form the basis for their 90% efficacy finding.
Leerink said it was unlikely the vaccine would be approved for use in the United States, because the data so far did not match requirements set by regulators there. AstraZeneca said it plans to seek approval to modify its U.S. study to get more data on the smaller initial dose.
Some scientists said all three vaccines could prove comparable in the end.
"I think it is a real fool's errand to start trying to pick these three (Pfizer/Moderna/Astra) apart on the basis of snippets of phase 3 data from press releases," said Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London.
"For the bigger picture, my suspicion is that by the time we are a year down the line, we'll be using all three vaccines with about 90% protection - and we'll be a lot happier."
Pascal Soriot, Astra's chief executive, said the smaller initial dose was good news, as it meant limited supplies could stretch further to vaccinate more people.
The AstraZeneca vaccine uses a modified version of a chimpanzee cold virus to deliver instructions to cells to fight the target virus, a different approach from Pfizer and Moderna, which rely on new technology known as messenger RNA (mRNA).
AstraZeneca will now prepare regulatory submission of the data to authorities around the world that have a framework for conditional or early approval. It will also seek an emergency use listing from the WHO to speed up availability in poor countries.
(Additional reporting by Aakash Jagadeesh Babu, Alistair Smout and Ruma Paul; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Christopher Cushing and Carmel Crimmins)
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