AstraZeneca and Oxford University Sprint Ahead in the Race for a Coronavirus Vaccine

The British Drugmaker Has Already Started Making Doses to Meet Demand if the Vaccine Proves Effective

As total number of coronavirus cases across the world has now crosses the 7-million mark, scientists, drugmakers and governments are moving with unprecedented speed to deliver a vaccine to protect against Covid-19. The goal is to have a vaccine ready for use by the end of the year, or early next. Doing so would be a scientific feat as no vaccine has ever been developed so quickly, never mind manufactured for the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 115 potential COVID-19 vaccines are in development around the world, including several already in human trials from major pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, BioNtech, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Moderna, Sanofi and CanSino Biologics as the worldwide race for a vaccine kicks up another notch. The vaccine sprinting fastest is by AstraZeneca and the eyes of the country - and the world - are firmly upon the drugmaker. AstraZeneca became a front-runner in coronavirus drug development when it licensed work by the University of Oxford. The British drugmaker has already begun human trials on April 23, with a phase I trial in Britain due to end soon and a phase III trial already begun. The Oxford University team's experimental product, called "ChAdOx1 nCoV-19", is a type of immunisation known as a recombinant viral vector vaccine and is just one of at least 70 potential Covid-19 candidate shots under development by biotech and research teams around the world. The vaccine takes an adenovirus, and much like gene therapies seeking to correct defective DNA, uses it to coax the body's cells to produce the coronavirus' characteristic "spike" protein. The adenovirus used causes infections in chimpanzees but not in humans. The vaccine was chosen as the most suitable vaccine technology for the virus as it can generate a strong immune response from one dose. AstraZeneca have said that the first indication on efficacy would likely come in June or July and they expect to know by August if the AZD1222 vaccine is effective. If it works, the company will be able to produce two billion doses and it has agreed to supply half of the doses to low and middle-income countries. AstraZeneca CEO Soirot told the BBC the company was building a number of supply chains across the world "to support global access at no profit during the pandemic and has so far secured manufacturing capacity for two billion doses of the vaccine".  The UK government has given the University of Oxford £65.5m towards the development of the vaccine. After announcing the further funding this Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, said: "This new money will help mass-produce the Oxford vaccine so that if current trials are successful we have dosages to start vaccinating the UK population straight away." Sharma added "the UK will be first to get access" but that the Government would also ensure that "we're able to make the vaccine available to developing countries at the lowest possible cost". AstraZeneca has agreed to supply 100 million vaccines too the UK with the first deliveries expected in September. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has said that the first 30 million vaccines will be "at the start for the most vulnerable". AstraZeneca has also agreed to supply 300 million doses of the potential vaccine to the US in a $1.2 billion agreement with the U.S. government and 400 million doses across the EU in a contract signed with European governments worth $843 million. China, Brazil, Japan and Russia have also expressed interest. The shot would cost about 2.5 euros ($2.8) per dose in Europe, according to Italy’s health ministry and Astrazeneca said that it will not take any profit from the vaccine should it be rolled out during the pandemic. The costs in other regions have not been disclosed.  AstraZeneca has already started making doses now so that it can meet demand if the vaccine proves effective. "We are starting to manufacture this vaccine right now - and we have to have it ready to be used by the time we have the results," Soirot said. The firm reached a deal this week with New Jersey-based Catalent to finalise manufacturing and packaging for the vaccine. As part of their agreement, Catalent will help Astrazeneca produce “hundreds of millions of doses” of the drug, beginning in August, a spokesperson said. The drugmaker’s CEO said this week that the vaccine is expected to provide protection for one year. After that protection runs out, it isn’t clear whether recipients would be instructed to get another dose, or another vaccine, or rely on COVID-19 treatments if they're approved. So far, Gilead's remdesivir is the only treatment with an emergency use authorization but on Tuesday, researchers in the United Kingdom reported a cheap and widely available drug can help save the lives of patients seriously ill with coronavirus. UK experts say the low-dose steroid treatment dexamethasone is a major breakthrough in the fight against the deadly virus. It cut the risk of death by a third for patients on ventilators. For those on oxygen, it cut deaths by a fifth. Had the drug had been used to treat patients in the UK from the start of the pandemic, up to 5,000 lives could have been saved, researchers say. And it could be of huge benefit in poorer countries with high numbers of Covid-19 patients. If proven effective, the ZD1222 vaccine would allow people to leave their homes, go back to work, and rebuild the economy. But the UK Government has also cautioned that an effective coronavirus vaccine may never be found. In a foreword to the Government’s strategy to ease lockdown, the Prime Minister said that the “only feasible long-term solution” to end the coronavirus pandemic is the creation of an effective vaccine or treatment, but warned this was not an inevitability. The Government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said the development of an effective vaccine could never be guaranteed.