Coronavirus: How countries aim to get the vaccine first by cutting opaque supply deals

The University of Oxford recently published promising news about the results from the phase one/two trials of the vaccine it is developing for COVID-19. The clinical trials, involving 1,077 volunteers in the UK aged 18-55, showed that the AZD1222 vaccine appeared to be safe and generated the all-important dual antibody and T-cell immune response.

Yet as encouraging as this is, the public-partnership that underpins the project is a concern. Much of the funding came from the UK government, which announced a £65.5 million grant to the University of Oxford in March. Other funding had already come from outside the UK, including from the German Centre for Infection Research (DZIF) and the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) so this was not solely a UK initiative.

Also in March, Oxford reached a licensing agreement with AstraZeneca to commercialise and manufacture the vaccine. But despite this work being largely paid for by the public purse, very little is known about the details of this partnership. There is a lot we don’t know about who will own the intellectual property, how it will be shared and at what price it will be sold. The same is equally true of numerous other public-private partnerships to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

And while this global pandemic surely demands a globally coordinated response, governments have instead been clamouring to secure their own supplies of the vaccine.

Vaccine nationalism

If the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine proves successful, the company has undertaken to manufacture up to 30 million doses that will be available for people in the UK by September. This is part of an agreement to deliver 100 million doses in total that would be made available to other countries, but the UK will get access first.

In the same vein, the UK has placed advance purchase orders for two other vaccine prospects: 30 million doses for the one being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, and 60 million for another from Valneva of France. Again, these agreements lack transparency. We don’t know, for example, whether the taxpayer will still pay if the drugs don’t work.

We are seeing the same kind of approach elsewhere. In May, the US reached its own supply agreement with AstraZeneca for AZD1222. The Americans are investing US$1.2 billion (£942 million) in return for a 30,000-person vaccine trial in the US, and the manufacturing capacity to produce at least 300 million doses, with the first doses to be delivered as early as October. Similarly, the US has a supply deal with the Pfizer/BioNTech project.

Elsewhere, AstraZeneca has agreed to supply 400 million doses of AZD1222 to Europe starting from the end of the year through the Inclusive Vaccines Alliance (IVA), set up by Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands.

When Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, unveiled the EU vaccine strategy days later, reportedly to ensure that the union was not left behind in the vaccine race by big spenders like the US, she hailed the IVA as an important step towards joint action between the member states. Tellingly, there was no mention of access to AZD1222 for countries outside the EU.

For other countries, AstraZeneca announced a US$750 million agreement in June with CEPI and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to make, procure and distribute 300 million doses of AZD1222 with delivery starting at the end of the year. AstraZeneca also signed an agreement with the Serum Institute of India to sub-license AZD1222 to supply 1 billion doses to low- and middle-income countries, with a commitment to provide 400 million by year end. In all cases, little is known about the terms of the agreements.

By Duncan Matthews, Professor of Intellectual Property Law, Queen Mary University of London

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