AstraZeneca is to create a new vaccines unit as the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker plans for the future of its coronavirus shot beyond the pandemic.
The company said the reorganisation would bring together people who had previously been based in different parts of the business, and will be dedicated to the Covid-19 vaccine and tweaked versions to deal with new variants of Sars-CoV-2.
The move will not involve any extra investment in vaccines, but will make it easier for the company to continue making the Covid-19 shot over the long term.
AstraZeneca was chosen to develop the Covid-19 vaccine in conjunction with the University of Oxford, despite the drugmaker’s limited experience of large-scale vaccine production beyond a nasal spray for flu.
Unlike rival drugmakers such as major US pharma companies Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca supplied its coronavirus vaccine at cost. However, it committed to sell the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis only during the pandemic period. As hospitalisation numbers are falling in countries where vaccines are prevalent, its thoughts are turning to the future.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine has played a key role in supplying poorer countries because it is generally cheaper than other shots – costing about $5 (£3.70) a dose – and because it does not need to be stored at very low temperatures like some alternatives.
About 1.8bn doses of the vaccine have been delivered across 170 countries, and AstraZeneca has supplied 38% of the vaccines for Covax, a United Nations scheme for low and middle-income countries. The next biggest contributions to Covax have been Pfizer, at 27% of doses and Moderna at 13%.
However, AstraZeneca has also faced a significant amount of negative publicity related to very rare blood clot side-effects as well as manufacturing delays soon after its rapid launch. The US Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved the AstraZeneca shot months after three rival products gained authorisation, even though some of the AstraZeneca shots have been manufactured within the US for export to other countries.
A spokesperson for AstraZeneca said: “In order to optimise the management of our existing portfolio of vaccines and antibodies for viral respiratory infections, we are creating a dedicated vaccines and immune therapies unit that brings together R&D, manufacturing, commercial and medical teams.
“The team will be dedicated to our Covid-19 vaccine, our long-acting antibody combination and our developmental vaccine addressing multiple variants of concern, as well as to our existing portfolio for respiratory viral disease.”
The team will be led by Iskra Reic, a member of AstraZeneca’s senior executive team who previously led the company’s operations in Europe and Canada.