PLC has agreed to manufacture and distribute an experimental coronavirus vaccine from the University of Oxford—one of the most advanced candidates—in a partnership aimed at accelerating the widespread availability of the shot if it proves effective.
The involvement of the British pharmaceutical giant, announced Thursday, helps to overcome the biggest concern for vaccines under development at academic research laboratories: that even if they work, the institutions developing them lack the capacity to make them widely available.
“Our scale and global footprint will enable us to manufacture this at scale,” said Mene Pangalos, who heads biopharmaceuticals research and development at AstraZeneca. “How we’ll do that exactly is too soon to tell.”
AstraZeneca isn’t a major vaccine manufacturer, but the process of making the Oxford candidate is more akin to making biological drugs that are grown in living cells, according to Dr. Pangalos. Many of the its existing products are made in this way. The company will also draw on existing relationships with contract manufacturers, outside organizations that make products for pharmaceutical companies, he said.
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AstraZeneca didn’t disclose the commercial terms of the agreement, but it and the university said they would make the vaccine available on a nonprofit basis during the course of the pandemic.
The company already has an agreement in place to supply the vaccine—if it works—to the U.K. government and intends to speak with other governments in the coming weeks and months, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The Oxford vaccine is one of a small number of candidates that are already in human testing. Researchers last week began vaccinating volunteers for a 1,100-subject study to test its safety and get an early read on its effectiveness. If that stage passes muster, they plan to start a 5,000-person trial to get a definitive answer on whether it works by late May.
The researchers say they could learn whether the vaccine works as soon as September and begin emergency distribution at that point, although this is unlikely to stretch beyond around a million doses. That timetable means it could be the first proven vaccine in the world.
on Tuesday said its vaccine candidate could also be ready for emergency distribution as early as the fall.
AstraZeneca’s involvement means that manufacture of the vaccine, if successful, could be ramped up for widespread, global distribution.
Dr. Pangalos didn’t disclose a target timeline, but ramping up production of the vaccine is likely to take several months at least.
which is working on its own vaccine, has said it would take until the second half of next year to scale up the manufacture of its candidate. It hopes to eventually produce hundreds of millions of doses a year.
“We believe that together we will be in a strong position to start immunising against coronavirus once we have an effective approved vaccine,” said John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, who is a member of the British government’s coronavirus vaccine taskforce.
The Oxford vaccine moved quickly because the researchers behind it had already used the same platform for vaccines directed against other diseases. It started work on the coronavirus in January, as soon as Chinese researchers released the genetic sequence of the new virus.
Still, it is unlikely that any single vaccine will meet the global demand. “As in a horse race, the first horse out of the box isn’t necessarily the horse that finished the race,” said Adam Finn, who leads vaccines and immunization at the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Europe, at a media briefing Thursday. “We are not so interested in the winner as to how many horses we can get to that finishing line.”
Write to Denise Roland at Denise.Roland@wsj.com
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