As EU battles AstraZeneca shortages, U.K. races ahead with manufacture of new COVID vaccine

As Europe battles with vaccine shortages, the U.K. has started manufacturing up to 60 million doses of a new COVID vaccine — on its home turf.

French biotech Valneva will start producing its experimental COVID shot at a plant in Livingston, Scotland, ahead of trials and regulatory approval, the government announced on Thursday.

“By starting manufacturing, we will have a running start at rolling these out as quickly as possible to protect the British public if it receives regulatory approval,” said business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said on Twitter
on Thursday that the Valneva vaccine “will be another vital tool in our fight against the virus if approved.”

The news comes as the European Union is facing increasing pressure about the speed of its inoculation program, which has been worsened by drug companies AstraZeneca
and Pfizer
both announcing delays in delivery of their vaccines because of production issues at European plants.

German health minister Jens Spahn said the country is likely to face a shortage of vaccine until April, as he called for a vaccination summit involving pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers and politicians to look for ways of accelerating the rollout in the bloc.

“We will still have at least 10 tough weeks with a shortage,” he said in a tweet on Thursday.

His comments come as Germany’s vaccine committee recommended only using the AstraZeneca–Oxford vaccine on those between 18 and 64 years of age, according to wire service reports.

Meanwhile, Madrid’s health authorities said on Wednesday that they have suspended COVID vaccinations this week and next as they are running out of shots.

“Unfortunately, as we suspected the pace of deliveries was
interrupted,” Madrid’s deputy regional president Ignacio Aguado told reporters,
adding that the region has vaccinated 180,000 people since the campaign

By contrast, more than 7.1 million people across the U.K. have now had a least one dose of either the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been developed with the University of Oxford, or the shot made by German biotech BioNTech
and its U.S. partner Pfizer

The government, which has set a target to have 15 million of the most vulnerable citizens inoculated by mid February, has secured early access to 367 million doses of seven vaccines, including the one made by U.S. biotech Moderna

The EU, which signed a deal with AstraZeneca
in August for 300 million doses, with an option for 100 million more, is now demanding that the U.K.-Swedish drug company diverts supplies of its COVID-19 vaccine from U.K. plants to address the shortage.

Read: EU demands access to U.K.-made AstraZeneca vaccine shots as row over shortages intensifies

The two sides met late on Wednesday, during which AstraZeneca Chief Executive Pascal Soriot pledged to work with the EU, to resolve the issue.

“We have committed to even closer coordination to jointly chart a path for the delivery of our vaccine over the coming months as we continue our efforts to bring this vaccine to millions of Europeans at no profit during the pandemic.”

— Pascal Soriot, CEO, AstraZeneca

“We had a constructive and open conversation about the complexities of scaling up production of our vaccine, and the challenges we have encountered,” an AstraZeneca spokesperson said. “We have committed to even closer coordination to jointly chart a path for the delivery of our vaccine over the coming months as we continue our efforts to bring this vaccine to millions of Europeans at no profit during the pandemic”.

EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said in a tweet late on Wednesday that the 27-member bloc regretted the “continued lack of clarity” on the delivery schedule.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford shot is expected to be granted emergency authorization for use in the EU on Friday.

Shares in AstraZeneca fell 1.74% in London trading on Thursday morning.

The meeting between the EU and AstraZeneca took place just hours after French pharmaceutical company Sanofi
said that it will team up with BioNTech
and Pfizer to manufacture up to 125 million doses of their COVID shot.

Valneva is developing an inactivated, whole-virus vaccine, a more traditional approach than the one from BioNTech
and Pfizer, which uses the so-called messenger RNA, or mRNA, approach, which sends a message to cells telling them to create proteins that can generate an immune response. 

Read: New COVID-19 vaccine candidate Valneva starts clinical trials

The French company’s vaccine candidate is currently in Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials, involving 150 volunteers in sites across Bristol, Birmingham, Southampton and Newcastle, to evaluate the safety of the experimental shot, and whether it produced an immune response is healthy adults.

If successful, Valneva will carry out a larger study in April 2021, with more than 4,000 volunteers testing two doses of the vaccine in two groups: those aged between 18-65 years and the over 65s. The vaccine candidate could then become available by the fourth quarter of 2021.

“We believe that our vaccine, assuming successful development, can make a major contribution in the U.K. and beyond,” said Valneva Chief Executive Thomas Lingelbach in a statement on Thursday.

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