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

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AstraZeneca said on Monday (23 NOvember) 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, write Kate Holton, Josephine Mason and Kate Kelland.

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.

Some signs AstraZeneca vaccine durability could be a year - chief investigator Oxford COVID-19 vaccine efficacy would look higher if trial tested for severe virus See more stories 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. “

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. Scientists cautioned, however, against seeing this as evidence that it would be less useful than rivals. Vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna each prevented about 95% of cases according to interim data from their late-stage trials. The researchers did not say what proportion of the 131 cases of COVID-19 in the study received the smaller initial dose. “I think it is a real fool’s errand to start trying to pick these three (Pfizer/Moderna/Astra) apart on the basis of snippets of phase 3 data from press releases,” said Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London. “For the bigger picture, my suspicion is that by the time we are a year down the line, we’ll be using all three vaccines with about 90% protection - and we’ll be a lot happier.”

Researchers don’t know the exact reason why a smaller first dose proved more effective. “There are some examples where changing the way you prime the immune system, can result in a better response,” Pollard said. Pascal Soriot, Astra’s chief executive, said it was good news, as more people could be vaccinated faster with a limited supply. Shares and oil prices rose amid hopes another vaccine candidate would revive the global economy with U.S. stock futures trading higher and the STOXX index of Europe’s 600 largest shares gaining 0.5% to its highest since February. AstraZeneca’s own shares fell 1.8% as traders perceived the efficacy data as disappointing compared with rivals.

Pfizer and Moderna set the bar for success sky-high. The US Food and Drug Administration has said any shot would need to prevent disease or decrease severity in at least 50% of those vaccinated. The AstraZeneca vaccine uses a modified version of a chimpanzee common cold virus to deliver instructions to cells to fight the target virus, a traditional approach to vaccine development and different from the path taken by Pfizer and Moderna, which rely on new technology known as messenger RNA (mRNA). AstraZeneca, one of Britain’s most valuable listed companies, will now immediately prepare regulatory submission of the data to authorities around the world that have a framework in place for conditional or early approval.

It will also seek an emergency use listing from the World Health Organization to speed up availability in low-income countries. In parallel, the full analysis of the interim results is being submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. The US Food and Drug Administration is likely to approve in mid-December the distribution of the vaccine made by Pfizer, according to a top official of the US government’s vaccine development effort.

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Dutch PM condemns lockdown riots as 'criminal violence'

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Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (pictured) on Monday (25 January) condemned riots across the country at the weekend in which demonstrators attacked police and set fires to protest against a night-time curfew to slow the spread of the coronavirus, calling them “criminal violence”, writes .

The police said hundreds of people had been detained after incidents that began on Saturday evening and lasted until the early hours of Monday, including some in which rioters threw rocks and in one case knives at police and burned down a COVID-19 testing station.

“This has nothing to do with protest, this is criminal violence and we will treat it as such,” Rutte told reporters outside his office in The Hague.

Schools and non-essential shops in the Netherlands have been shut since mid-December, following the closure of bars and restaurants two months earlier.

Rutte’s government added the curfew as an additional lockdown measure from Saturday over fears that the British variant of COVID-19 may soon lead to an increase in cases.

There have been 13,540 deaths in the Netherlands from COVID-19 and 944,000 infections.

The police trade union NPB said there could be more protests ahead, as people grow increasingly frustrated with the country’s months-long lockdown.

“We haven’t seen so much violence in 40 years,” union board member Koen Simmers said on television program Nieuwsuur.

Police used water cannon, dogs and officers on horseback to disperse a protest in central Amsterdam on Sunday afternoon. Nearly 200 people, some of them throwing stones and fireworks, were detained in the city.

In the southern city of Eindhoven, looters plundered stores at the train station and set cars and bikes on fire.

When police said the demonstrators were violating the country’s current lockdown rules “they took weapons out of their pockets and immediately attacked the police”, Eindhoven Mayor John Jorritsma said.

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Head of French health regulatory body: COVID situation is 'worrying'

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The COVID-19 situation in France is worrying, the head of the country’s Haute Autorite de Sante (HAS) health regulator told France Inter radio on Monday (25 January), as President Emmanuel Macron’s government considers a new lockdown, write Sudip Kar-Gupta and Dominique Vidalon.

France has the world’s seventh-highest COVID-19 death toll, with more than 73,000 deaths.

“It is a worrying moment. We are looking at the figures, day by day. We need to take measures pretty quickly....but at the same time, not too hastily,” said HAS head Dominique Le Guludec.

Jean-François Delfraissy, head of the scientific council that advises the government on COVID-19, had said on Sunday that France probably needed a third national lockdown, perhaps as early as the February school holidays, because of the circulation of new variants of the virus.

French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune, when asked about this on French radio on Monday, replied that no firm decision had been taken on the matter.

France is currently in a nationwide 18h to 6h curfew, in a bid to slow down the spread of the virus, but the average number of new infections has increased from 18,000 per day to more than 20,000.

Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, head of the MEDEF French business lobby group, said he would call on the government to keep as many businesses and schools open as possible in any new lockdown, to protect the economy and help children’s education.

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EU urges AstraZeneca to speed up vaccine deliveries amid 'supply shock'

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The European Union has urged AstraZeneca to find ways to swiftly deliver vaccines after the company announced a large cut in supplies of its COVID-19 shot to the bloc, as news emerged the drugmaker also faced supply problems elsewhere, write and

In a sign of the EU’s frustration - after Pfizer also announced supply delays earlier in January - a senior EU official told Reuters the bloc would in the coming days require pharmaceutical companies to register COVID-19 vaccine exports.

AstraZeneca, which developed its shot with Oxford University, told the EU on Friday it could not meet agreed supply targets up to the end of March, with an EU official involved in the talks telling Reuters that meant a 60% cut to 31 million doses.

“We expect the company to find solutions and to exploit all possible flexibilities to deliver swiftly,” an EU Commission spokesman said, adding the head of the EU executive Ursula von der Leyen had a call earlier on Monday with AstraZeneca’s chief Pascal Soriot to remind him of the firm’s commitments.

A spokesman for AstraZeneca said Soriot told von der Leyen the company was doing everything it could to bring its vaccine to millions of Europeans as soon as possible.

News emerged on Monday that the company faces wider supply problems.

Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters AstraZeneca had advised the country it had experienced “a significant supply shock”, which would cut supplies in March below what was agreed. He did not provide figures.

Thailand’s Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said AstraZeneca would be supplying 150,000 doses instead of the 200,000 planned, and far less than the 1 million shots the country had initially requested.

AstraZeneca declined to comment on global supply issues.

The senior EU official said the bloc had a contractual right to check the company’s books to assess production and deliveries, a move that could imply the EU fears doses being diverted from Europe to other buyers outside the bloc.

AstraZeneca has received an upfront payment of 336 million euros ($409 million) from the EU, another official told Reuters when the 27-nation bloc sealed a supply deal with the company in August for at least 300 million doses - the first signed by the EU to secure COVID-19 shots..

Under advance purchase deals sealed during the pandemic, the EU makes down-payments to companies to secure doses, with the money expected to be mostly used to expand production capacity.

“Initial volumes will be lower than originally anticipated due to reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain,” AstraZeneca said on Friday.

The site is a viral vectors factory in Belgium run by the drugmaker’s partner Novasep.

Viral vectors are produced in genetically modified living cells that have to be nurtured in bioreactors. The complex procedure requires fine-tuning of various inputs and variables to arrive at consistently high yields.

“The flimsy justification that there are difficulties in the EU supply chain but not elsewhere does not hold water, as it is of course no problem to get the vaccine from the UK to the continent,” said EU lawmaker Peter Liese, who is from the same party as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The EU called a meeting with AstraZeneca after Friday’s (22 January) announcement to seek further clarification. The meeting started at 1230 CET on Monday.

The EU official involved in the talks with AstraZeneca said expectations were not high for the meeting, in which the company will be asked to better explain the delays.

Earlier in January, Pfizer, which is currently the largest supplier of COVID-19 vaccines to the EU, announced delays of nearly a month to its shipments, but hours later revised this to say the delays would last only a week.

EU contracts with vaccine makers are confidential, but the EU official involved in the talks did not rule out penalties for AstraZeneca, given the large revision to its commitments. However, the source did not elaborate on what could trigger the penalties. “We are not there yet,” the official added.

“AstraZeneca has been contractually obligated to produce since as early as October and they are apparently delivering to other parts of the world, including the UK without delay,” Liese said.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine is expected to be approved for use in the EU on Jan. 29, with first deliveries expected from 15 February.

($1 = €0.8214)

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