Oxford seeks to keep pace in hunt for game-changing vaccine
The chairman of Pfizer wasn’t in the mood for modesty. “Today is a great day for science and humanity,” Dr Albert Bourla declared after the New York-based pharma company unveiled news of its Covid-19 vaccine on Monday.
The announcement that Pfizer’s vaccine can stop more than 90pc of people from catching the deadly virus sent shock waves around the world, offering hope that life could soon return to normal and sending global stock markets surging.
Pfizer, Bourla said, was now “a significant step closer to providing people around the world with a much-needed breakthrough to help bring an end to this global health crisis”.
For the US giant’s rivals, however, there was little time to reflect. Across the Atlantic in Oxford, where Britain’s AstraZeneca is collaborating with the university to develop a separate vaccine, work on another trial was continuing apace.
The value of finding a reliable vaccine cannot be underestimated. While companies including AstraZeneca have agreed to a “no-profit” pledge up until at least the middle of next year, the prize on offer remains significant.
Pharma companies could be raking in more than $10bn (£7.6bn) in annual revenues for Covid vaccines in the coming years, experts suggest. It is a prospect which has cheered investors, with AstraZeneca’s shares up by almost 40pc since March.
On Monday, such optimism dipped, with shares nudging down as Pfizer’s findings appeared to put the US firm in the lead in a global race to release an effective vaccine. Yet, researchers caution against assuming it will be first to begin mass inoculations.
The British-made vaccine is “definitely in the race”, says Sir John Bell, part of the UK’s vaccine taskforce: “Don’t worry about us. We’re fine – we’ll be fine. If it works, that is. I’ve never said that it worked.”
But, Sir John adds: “I’d be quite optimistic now that it will.”
In fact, far from being disheartened by the news about Pfizer’s progress, many vaccine experts are now more convinced than ever that AstraZeneca and Oxford are headed for success. That’s because both vaccine candidates have distinct similarities.
Like Pfizer’s, AstraZeneca’s vaccine targets the so-called “spike protein”, the biological tool that Covid uses to invade our cells. The fact that this mechanism has been proven to be effective offers hope AstraZeneca’s will also work.
“The trial results have shown that the immune system can respond to that protein,” says Shore Capital analyst Adam Barker.
The question now is when AstraZeneca and Oxford will be able to prove that themselves – and how far behind Pfizer they may be.
Bell says that it is unlikely to be too long. Results are expected within weeks – a sentiment echoed by AstraZeneca which has said findings for the trial, costing more than $1bn, should come before the end of the year.
This will not just be the efficacy data that Pfizer has released, but also how safe the vaccine is, with details of the potential risks and side-effects.
“Pfizer have got to go over all their safety data, and that will take another 10 days or two weeks,” Bell says.
The Oxford trial, on the other hand, is expected to announce both sets of findings simultaneously. When this will be remains far from certain.
Tale of the tape: Pfizer/BioNTech v AstraZeneca/Oxford
As the vaccine is undergoing a “blind trial”, there are strict rules about the information available to those involved.
In other words, AstraZeneca is unable to see how the trial is progressing until a specific number of Covid-19 infections have been registered.
Only once that target, which relies on both those who were given a placebo and those who were given a vaccine contracting Covid-19, has been hit will the company be able to access the data showing if it works.
While further drops of data look likely in the coming weeks, not just from Pfizer and AstraZeneca, but also rival firm Moderna, experts have cautioned that there is unlikely to be one winner from the vaccine race.
“There are 7.8 billion people in the world,” explains Bill Enright, the boss of immunotherapy company Vaccitech, which was involved in the Oxford trial.
“Just based on the number of people we’re talking about dosing, there’s a lot of room for additional vaccines.”
Take flu as an example, he says. “There, things are differentiated. You’ve got some vaccines targeted for people over 65, and some for children. That’s likely to happen for Covid-19.”
It would be easy to assume that the vaccine first out of the gates will, however, automatically get larger order numbers.
Shore’s Barker says there is the view that Pfizer’s vaccine could become “more entrenched” if it is first to market. But, he argues, “one vaccine just won’t do, and funnily enough, if there was one vaccine that you were going to say would probably struggle to get to multiple places in the world, it would be Pfizer’s”.
This is because unlike others, Pfizer’s vaccine must be stored at temperatures of -70C to -80C, although the company says it can be kept for up to five days at fridge temperatures.
Still, this could present complications in how the vaccine is distributed, something ministers are already starting to consider.
Vaccine capacity and pre-orders
Bell agrees such a task would not be easy. “The idea we are going to have GP Joe with a liquid nitrogen tank in his office, I mean, really, how’s that going to work?”
In some regions of the world, Pfizer’s vaccine may be impractical. “You can’t do liquid nitrogen in sub-Saharan Africa or in the isles of Scotland, so there’ll be horses for courses. If you had a couple of vaccines, you could pick and choose depending on the setting.”
Whether AstraZeneca’s vaccine will be among the choices still remains uncertain. It could, ultimately, be the first to market. On the other hand, once the data is revealed, the vaccine might not work.
“Let’s wait and see,” says Bell. “The good news is this thing is on the run now.”