AstraZeneca says COVID-19 ‘vaccine for the world’ can be 90% effective

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(Reuters) – AstraZeneca said on Monday its COVID-19 vaccine could be around 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 was 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 when it was administered as a half dose followed by a full dose at least a month later, according to data from late-stage trials in Britain and Brazil. No serious safety events were confirmed, the company said.

The vaccine’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 massive 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.

“I think we’re getting close, and it’s definitely going to be before Christmas based on the progress,” Pollard said in an interview with the BBC.

Pollard discussed progress in the late-stage trials as Oxford released a study based on earlier research that found the vaccine was well tolerated and produced a strong immune response in people aged above 70. This is important because vaccines often do not work as well in older people, Pollard said.

“The reason that we’re so delighted is we’re seeing the immune responses look exactly the same, even in those who are over 70 years of age,” Pollard said.

The findings were based on a so-called Phase 2 trial of 560 people, including 240 above the age of 70. The results of the peer-reviewed study were published on Thursday in the Lancet, an international medical journal.

Phase 2 vaccine trials provide important preliminary data but do not prove whether they ultimately prevent people from getting sick. Oxford and AstraZeneca are waiting for the results of Phase 3 trials on thousands of people around the world to show whether their vaccine is safe and effective.

Two other drugmakers, Pfizer and Moderna, this week reported preliminary results from late-stage trials showing that their COVID-19 vaccines were almost 95 percent effective.

Pollard said there is no competition between the various research teams because several vaccines would be needed to bring the global pandemic under control and allow life to return to normal.

Despite recent progress, Pollard said the world is still in the early stages of the effort to protect people against COVID-19. Even after vaccines are approved by regulators, drugmakers and public health officials still face the task of producing billions of doses and administering them to people around the world, he said.

Pollard, an amateur mountaineer, compared the task with the work involved in climbing a mountain.

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.

“WE’LL BE A LOT HAPPIER”

The results showed the effectiveness of AstraZeneca’s vaccine depended on the dosing, and fell to just 62% when given as two full doses rather than a half-dose first.

“I think we’re still at the bottom of that mountain in some ways,” he said. “We’ve done the route into the bottom of the mountain, the long trek to get to the start. Now we’ve got to get the data about the vaccines in front of regulators for them to scrutinise it and approve the first vaccines. And then we’ve got that huge effort to climb up to the top where we’ve got a vast majority of those who are at risk vaccinated.”

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