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How EU leaders destroyed AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine dream

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Covid-19 vaccines with EU flag
Covid-19 vaccines with EU flag

In the darkest days of the coronavirus crisis, Emmanuel Macron took to the media circuit with a scathing attack on the world’s cheapest Covid vaccine – and the only one to be produced at cost.

Britain’s pioneering jab, developed by Oxford University and manufactured by AstraZeneca, was “quasi-ineffective” on older people, the French President said. “The real problem on AstraZeneca is that it doesn’t work the way we were expecting it to,” he added.

Weeks later, when a study suggested there was a tiny chance that patients could develop blood clots, the vaccine’s use was curtailed across Europe. In America, it was never approved at all.

The damage caused by Europe’s assault on AstraZeneca is now becoming clear. The company’s decision to make its jab without taking a profit has squeezed margins. The company is now weighing up whether it wants a future in vaccines at all.

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca’s biggest rival Pfizer is hiking forecasts, despite a paper submitted to The Lancet this week suggesting that the two vaccines have a similar safety profile.

Macron - Getty
Macron - Getty

In Britain, ministers have reacted with blind fury to what they see as a European Union campaign motivated chiefly by envy at British scientific expertise and animosity over Brexit.

“The European leaders who trashed the AstraZeneca vaccine now have blood on their hands,” a Government official told Politico.

“When the history books are written, they’ll say these people are directly responsible for the deaths of thousands in developing countries.”

After all, AstraZeneca’s vaccine has been the only one available to many people in poorer parts of the world. Under the Covax scheme, which distributes vaccines to developing countries.

AstraZeneca’s leading role in getting vaccines to the poorer countries is one which few would have predicted. But insiders have said there was no doubt in chief executive Pascal Soriot’s mind that he wanted to help when the University of Oxford asked to team up with the company last year.

“Pascal said, ‘look, this is something that we could do for the world, it would be terrific’,” vaccine tsar Sir John Bell recalls.

There was never any guarantee it would work. In March 2020, Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease, predicted it would take at least 18 months to create a vaccine.

Ultimately, less than nine months after Fauci’s comments, Pfizer and BioNTech’s jab became the first vaccine to get approval from the UK regulator. Weeks later, AstraZeneca and Oxford’s vaccine received the green light.

But, where the former was roundly cheered and is now one of the most widely used in higher income countries, the AstraZeneca jab remains marred by early criticism.

At the start of the year, discussion focused on its potential link to blood clots. However, a paper this week suggested AstraZeneca-jabbed patients develop blood clots at a “similar rate” to those who received the Pfizer vaccine.

“I think that paper looks pretty good,” says Sir John. “We haven’t seen a big problem with blood clots in Latin America, in southeast Asia, and we haven’t seen a lot of blood clots in Africa.

“There is an interesting question over whether there’s a differential liability to blood clots in Northern European Caucasian people in Norway, where they first appeared, as compared to everyone else.”

It is not the only issue to have weighed on the company. For months, AstraZeneca found itself at the centre of a row over supply rates, which ultimately became the subject of a lawsuit from Brussels after it struggled to meet deliveries. A judge later ruled that it did not need to speed up deliveries to the bloc.

Such turmoil has not escaped the notice of shareholders. “The bottom line is AstraZeneca makes no money from this. Investors are frustrated that it’s a distraction of their own making,” says Alistair Campbell, an analyst at Liberum.

Meanwhile, US company Pfizer’s vaccine has gone from strength to strength. Made using a pioneering mRNA technique – where genetic information is injected into the arm, teaching cells how to make antibodies – they are being sold for around $20 (£14) per dose compared to the $4 (£2.80) typically charged for an Astra jab.

Pfizer has garnered a reputation for better safety, higher effectiveness and fewer side-effects that Astra, and the American business is reaping the rewards. This week, the company increased its projected annual revenues from the vaccine from $26bn to $33.5bn.

Meanwhile, the controversies at Astra have led to question marks over its future in vaccines. On Thursday, Ruud Dobber, head of Astra’s biopharmaceuticals unit, told Reuters that the business was “exploring different options” for its work in the field.

There are those who say that it isn’t over. Analysts argue that growing out a vaccine business may be more than AstraZeneca can handle at the moment. Pushing into vaccines on a longer-term basis is something that would be a “big decision”, says Adam Barker, of Shore Capital. “There are very high barriers to entry.”

As it stands, Campbell says the business is currently “one vaccine, it’s one project, I don’t think it’s something they can spin off”.

On an analyst call this week, Campbell said that AstraZeneca seems to have little appetite to push further into vaccines, with the company instead telling analysts that its focus was on the huge task of integrating Alexion as part of its $39bn (£28bn) takeover.

In truth, there is much still to do on Covid-19. Only 13pc of the world are fully vaccinated against the virus. In developing countries, the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine will remain invaluable, and booster shots could soon be needed. But the past 18 months may have left a bitter taste for many within AstraZeneca.

Developing jabs for all may be a “terrific thing” for humanity, but it is one which has proved an uphill battle for Britain’s champion.

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