Why is AstraZeneca Plc making so many direct errors in its attempt to distribute billions of doses of Covid vaccine around the world at minimal cost? Once the pandemic is under control, the Anglo-Swedish drug maker should examine if there is a problem with the way it makes its decisions.
AstraZeneca agreed in April to help develop, manufacture and distribute the University of Oxford jab against Covid-19. He had no activity in vaccines: the goal was to contribute his resources to the fight against the pandemic on a non-profit basis. These strengths include a global network and established capabilities in conducting large clinical trials. The result is millions of jabs administered in a year. However, lack of vaccine expertise, overconfidence in what the company could accomplish, and naivety about the politics of the task cannot be ruled out.
One problem has been the communication of scientific results. November data from trials in the UK and Brazil created confusion over efficacy. This week, there were doubts about a subsequent lawsuit in the United States and South America that was supposed to clear up the matter. AstraZeneca announced on Monday the interim results of the US study indicating that the Oxford jab was 79% effective in preventing symptomatic Covid-19. Yet an independent panel that participated in the trial questioned whether the findings were reliable because the analysis did not include the most recent data.
It is not controversial to release the findings of an interim analysis up to a point, in this case on February 17. AstraZeneca has since said that including the most recent data lowers the efficiency to 76%. The difference is minimal. It remains to be seen whether this latest confusion could have been avoided thanks to better liaison with American supervisors before the first announcement.
The second problem concerns excessive optimism in its ability to deliver doses. Vaccines are difficult to manufacture, as AstraZeneca finds. The productivity of identical factories can vary for no obvious reason, according to analysts at UBS Group AG. As a result, the drug manufacturer aims to provide just 100 million doses to the EU in the first half of 2021, out of 400 million ordered.
AstraZeneca’s supply agreements did not prove helpful in handling this scenario. His contract with the EU may allow preferential treatment to be given to an earlier deal with the UK, but that does not resolve the vaccine trade war that has erupted. Either AstraZeneca was naive to think the fine print was about a rare offer, or it didn’t think the situation would arise in the first place.The EU can beat AstraZeneca whatever it wants, but that won’t suddenly improve manufacturing processes. Its energy can be better focused on the alternative vaccine supply.
Where should AstraZeneca go from here? One concern is that tensions with politicians and regulators will hurt the business in the long run. If AstraZeneca has a real blockbuster drug up its sleeve at some point, the data for that drug will be what matters and recent events really shouldn’t be relevant. Still, its relationship with regulators clearly needs work. As for the EU’s impasse, it seems difficult to resolve without help from the UK government – which can come.
A larger question is whether AstraZeneca’s internal processes support a realistic assessment of projects. Of course, the vaccination effort is gargantuan and unprecedented. But it’s getting harder and harder to avoid parallels with some recent disappointments about the prospects for drugs in its core business, where the company has allowed high expectations to build. AstraZeneca is also more optimistic than analysts about the increase in sales resulting from its $ 39 billion purchase of Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc.
You can see where the corporate optimism can come from. CEO Pascal Soriot thwarted a takeover by Pfizer Inc. in 2014, promising to return the company to growth amid a wave of patent expiration. He realizes this turnaround. AstraZeneca’s pipeline is the envy of the industry.
Drug discovery only happens if CEOs like Soriot have the confidence to take big risks. With the vaccine already developed by Oxford, the risk-taking here was linked to childbirth. This was more suitable for companies producing vaccines for commercial purposes. Having now gone through a steep learning curve, it might actually make sense for AstraZeneca to make a deal of it.
But the board is asking a more difficult question: whether the confidence that fueled the company’s enormous contribution to the viral effort can also be an Achilles heel.
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James Boxell at [email protected]