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U.S. Raises Ante in Vaccine Race With $1.2 Billion for Astra

John Lauerman and Suzi Ring

(Bloomberg) --

The U.S. threw its weight behind one of the fastest-moving experimental solutions to the coronavirus pandemic, pledging as much as $1.2 billion to AstraZeneca Plc to help make the University of Oxford’s Covid vaccine.

Beset by criticism of his response to the outbreak, President Donald Trump is pushing his way toward the front of the line to secure a shot to protect Americans from the virus and allow business to resume. The U.S. has backed projects underway at Johnson & Johnson, Moderna Inc. and France’s Sanofi, fueling concerns that other parts of the world could fall behind.

As companies and governments pour money into development of a vaccine, seen as a key to lifting lockdowns that have crippled economies globally, stock markets are gyrating on developments in research labs. Astra, Sanofi and others have secured funding even as their candidates for a protective jab are still in trials, with no guarantee of success.

Read More: Coronavirus Vaccine Passes a Crucial First Test

“We of course cannot be sure that the vaccine will work -- that’s why we run the clinical trial -- but we have good confidence that it should actually be a successful vaccine and, if so, we will be ready to supply it,” AstraZeneca Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

The funding for AstraZeneca is part of the Operation Warp Speed effort to secure vaccines for the U.S., according to a statement from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. The country expects 300 million doses to be available as early as October.

“We have a lot of things happening on the vaccine front,” Trump told reporters at the White House as he departed to tour a ventilator plant in Michigan. “We’re so far ahead of where people thought we’d be.”

Soriot said the drug would enter phase III clinical trials in June, and they’ll run to the end of August. Astra shares rose 0.9% Thursday in London.

Billion Doses

The U.K. drugmaker received the money from the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and said it has secured capacity to make 1 billion doses. Astra has identified supply chains in the U.S. and U.K., according to Soriot.

The U.S. agency has also provided $30 million for Sanofi’s Covid vaccine candidate and $226 million for its work to counter pandemic influenza. A coronavirus shot developed by the French company would probably go to Americans first, Chief Executive Officer Paul Hudson said last week in an interview with Bloomberg News.

Sanofi said later that it would make the vaccine available everywhere. While the absence of a European counterpart to BARDA has slowed efforts to secure supplies, Hudson said the French company is in talks with several governments on possible arrangements.

Dozens of other vaccine projects are underway around the world, from the U.S. to China, drawing in major pharma giants, university labs and others. Moderna shares jumped earlier this week after the U.S. biotech revealed positive early results from its experimental vaccine. President Xi Jinping of China has said any successful vaccine developed there will be made available as a global public good.

Although it’s helpful that countries like the U.S. are stepping up and contributing to vaccine development, the only way to move on from the pandemic is to ensure equal access to a jab, said David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Equal Access

It’s “important that all countries have equal risks and at the same time equal response mechanisms so that travel and trade can begin, and that can only be accomplished if everyone has the same level of protection,” Heymann said.

Astra plans to make as many as 30 million doses available in Britain by September and has committed to delivering 100 million this year.

Soriot said Astra is working with groups including the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, on making sure the vaccine is allocated fairly so that poorer countries have access. The company has supply agreements for 400 million doses.

“There is no preference for any country,” Soriot said. “We have geographic-based supply chains so we can serve everybody.”

Funding Trial

The U.S. funding will support a final-stage clinical trial with 30,000 participants, as well as tests in children, AstraZeneca said.

Some doubts have been raised about the potential effectiveness of the Oxford vaccine after early results in monkeys were released. While the shot may have protected animals against severe infections, the results were weak compared with those of a test of a vaccine under development by Sinovac Biotech in Beijing, said William Haseltine, a former Harvard University HIV researcher, in a blog post.

The comparison is inapt for studies carried out with different types of vaccines given in varying doses, in monkeys who were infected with different levels of virus, the Oxford researchers said in a statement. “In the end it is the impact on clinical disease that matters,” they said.

(Updates with comments from Trump in sixth paragraph)

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