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AstraZeneca vaccine document shows limit of no-profit pledge

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AstraZeneca vaccine document shows limit of no-profit pledge

Company has right under contract to declare pandemic over by July 2021

AstraZeneca’s new factory in Sodertalje, Sweden. The company, which is developing a vaccine with Oxford university, received hundreds of millions in public money to fast track development © Bloomberg via Getty Images

AstraZeneca, which has promised not to profit from its Covid-19 vaccine “during the pandemic”, has the right to declare an end to the pandemic as soon as July 2021, according to an agreement with a manufacturer.

The UK pharmaceutical company, which is developing a vaccine candidate with Oxford university, has said it would provide doses on a cost basis for at least as long as the pandemic lasts.

However, a memorandum of understanding between AstraZeneca and a Brazilian manufacturer, which has been seen by the Financial Times, defines the “Pandemic Period” as ending on July 1 2021. The period could be extended but only if “AstraZeneca acting in good faith considers that the SARS-COV-2 pandemic is not over”, it says. 

But cases globally show no sign of tapering. Even optimistic forecasts predict an approved vaccine is unlikely to be widely available for public vaccination campaigns before the middle of next year.

The MoU outlines the conditions of a deal signed in July between AstraZeneca and Fiocruz, a Brazilian public health institution, to produce at least 100m vaccine doses, worth more than $300m.

It seems that it is the drug companies that determine, in secret deals, who will get access to the vaccine and when

Ellen ‘t Hoen, Medicines Law & Policy

Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca’s chief executive, has previously said that a number of factors would influence the company’s assessment of when the pandemic is over, including the World Health Organization’s own analysis, but has not been more specific. He has also declined to disclose a post-pandemic price point.

The future cost of any approved vaccine is a contentious issue after pharmaceutical groups including AstraZeneca, received hundreds of millions of dollars in public money to fast track development. Some companies have said from the outset that they can only develop the vaccine for profit. Others, such as AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, have agreed to provide doses on a cost basis for at least as long as the pandemic lasts.

Several drugmakers have already signed sales agreements with governments but the terms of the contracts are confidential and few details have been released.

AstraZeneca declined to answer specific questions regarding its definition of the “Pandemic Period” or the Fiocruz agreement.

“From the outset, AstraZeneca’s approach has been to treat the development of the vaccine as a response to a global public health emergency, not a commercial opportunity,” the company said in a statement. “We continue to operate in that public spirit and we will seek expert guidance, including from global organisations, as to when we can say that the pandemic is behind us.”

Oxford university also declined to respond to specific questions. “The terms of our agreement are confidential but uphold Oxford’s commitment to fair and equitable access to the vaccine for the duration of the pandemic should it prove to be effective in our global phase 3 clinical trials,” the university said.

Public health experts say many of the vaccine deals, including those involving AstraZeneca, are shrouded in secrecy, offering little room for scrutiny.

Manuel Martin, medical innovation and access policy adviser at Médecins Sans Frontières, said the terms of the Fiocruz MoU gave AstraZeneca “an unacceptable level of control over a vaccine developed through public funds”. “Relying on voluntary measures by pharmaceutical corporations to ensure access is a mistake with fatal consequences,” he said.

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AstraZeneca has received large amounts of public money to develop its vaccine and secure forward orders, including at least $1bn from the US. Supply deals to date indicate that the vaccine, which requires two doses, is priced at about $3 to $4 per dose, lower than the prices disclosed or reported for other potential vaccines.

Ellen ‘t Hoen, director of Medicines Law & Policy, a non-profit campaigning for greater access to medicines, said more transparency was needed.

“Despite all the talk about the Covid-19 vaccine needing to be a ‘global public good’ by political leaders who spend billions on Covid-19 R&D, it seems that it is the drug companies that determine, in secret deals, who will get access to the vaccine and when,” she said.

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