Profit and risk in race for a vaccine
There's big money in creating the first COVID-19 vaccine. What will that mean for its safety?
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More than 100 separate labs are competing to develop the first COVID-19 vaccine, said Stephanie Baker at Bloomberg Businessweek, and a partnership between the University of Oxford and the pharma giant AstraZeneca is leading the race. A team of researchers at Oxford's Jenner Institute reported positive results this week from an early-stage human trial with more than 1,000 participants, and the stock market leaped at the news. The Oxford lab's vaccine is adenovirus-based; such vaccines have a small but critical "advantage over other candidates: They need only to be kept chilled rather than frozen." That could make worldwide distribution easier for AstraZeneca, which struck a manufacturing deal with Oxford — assisted by Bill Gates — "in about 10 days through a flurry of Zoom calls." After that deal was announced, "big money followed." The biggest patron: The United States' pandemic drug authority, BARDA, which handed AstraZeneca more than $1.2 billion; a test of 30,000 people in the U.S. is scheduled to start next month.
The U.S. biotech upstart Moderna has also shown promising preliminary results, said Peter Loftus and Gregory Zuckerman at The Wall Street Journal, but "skepticism has dogged it since its creation in 2010." As its name suggests, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, biotech firm uses a novel process involving the creation of synthetic RNA. But while it has "more than 20 experimental drugs and vaccines" in development, "none are close to being commercially available." Since Moderna's COVID vaccine entered human trials, its stock has risen more than 230 percent. That has let some Moderna executives profit, even though their vaccine has been tested on just a few human subjects, said Christopher Rowland and Carolyn Johnson at The Washington Post. CEO Stéphane Bancel and other executives have "picked up the pace" of their stock selling as the share price rises, and chairman Noubar Afeyan's venture capital firm sold $68 million of Moderna stock. The selling has continued even as Securities and Exchange Commission head Jay Clayton cautioned Moderna to "avoid even the appearance of impropriety."
Also raising questions is a $1.6 billion federal contract awarded to Novavax, a company that has "never brought a vaccine to market," said Katie Thomas and Megan Twohey at The New York Times. The Trump administration wanted to "invest in a variety of vaccine technologies," and Novavax's approach holds out the possibility of faster vaccine production than some others. But critics see a second-tier player that has repeatedly "boosted its stock by promising vaccines for new outbreaks, yet never delivering."
"Trump did promise America First," said The Economist, and his administration has "turned on the federal money hose" to achieve it. The U.S. has already cut deals for priority access to COVID treatments, causing alarm in countries that worry the U.S. will expect the same preference after "stumping up a lot of cash" in the vaccine race. Another concern is that the FDA will "cut corners" to make a vaccine ready before the election. The agency says that won't happen, but it's already been blasted for giving emergency approval as a COVID treatment to hydroxychloroquine "to avoid embarrassing the president," who endorsed the drug.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.