Astrazeneca moves to upstage Moderna in Covid-19 vaccines

The UK big pharma group unveils funding and a clinical programme that could overshadow the efforts of its biotech rival.

Three days after Moderna generated an investor frenzy by dribbling out reports of neutralising antibodies in eight volunteers given its Covid-19 vaccine, Astrazeneca has come out swinging. The message from the big pharma group is: anything you can do, we can do better.

Astra today revealed that, to help develop and produce its own coronavirus vaccine, it had secured over $1bn from the US government – more than double that granted to Moderna. Its development programme, and promise to unveil data “shortly” from a study in 1,000 volunteers, threaten to upstage Moderna’s efforts so far.

The vaccine Astra is involved in is COV001, a chimp adenovirus vector-based project in development at the UK’s University of Oxford. Astra joined this effort last month in a scale-up and distribution deal, and now calls the project AZD1222.

Speedy work

Today’s development is another example of the speed of the industry’s effort to tackle the new coronavirus.

AZD1222’s clinical trial only began last month, yet it is expected to yield results shortly, though admittedly Astra does not say whether data on all 1,000 subjects will be available. Still, if this is positive a 30,000-strong phase III study is planned, and manufacturing capacity has been secured to enable shipping in September.

For its part Moderna unveiled positive though very preliminary findings from a handful of volunteers in the NIAID’s trial of its mRNA vaccine mRNA-1273 (Moderna reminds the markets of biotech’s dual purpose, May 19, 2020). The biotech group is starting phase II in 600 volunteers imminently, but has yet to finalise the design of a phase III test.

Subsequently Moderna came under fire for the piecemeal way it had revealed its findings by press release. As Stat points out, it is impossible to put the company’s findings into context, or verify its claim that mRNA-1273 elicited neutralising antibody levels equivalent to or above those in convalescent sera, given the wide variability of patients recovered from Covid-19.

As for the scale of each project, Moderna’s 10-year agreement with Lonza targets the eventual production of up to a billion doses a year, as long as the dose is 50µg. Astra seems to want at least to match this, saying first agreements for at least 400 million doses had been concluded, and manufacturing capacity secured for “one billion doses so far”.

Thorny issues

On the other hand, however vague Moderna's claims were, the company seems to have convinced many that it does have a potentially efficacious product. The Oxford vaccine, meanwhile, has come under fire for lack of activity in a rhesus monkey study, so Astra will be keen to reverse this perception when it reports the first human data.

A separate controversy was that Moderna had secured up to $483m from the US government agency Barda, yet was still able to tap investors for $1.3bn. Today Astra revealed $1bn of Barda funding of its own.

The UK group could come in for similar criticism to Moderna, and it is certainly valid to ask why the US is throwing taxpayer money at hugely well-financed and sometimes profitable corporate entities.

Astra has hinted at a quid pro quo, saying its Covid-19 vaccine would be “widely accessible around the world in an equitable manner”. But neither it nor Moderna has tackled directly the thorny issue of how any vaccine would be priced, or whether and how soon it would have to be profitable.

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