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Vaccine Muddle Is Reputational Risk for AstraZeneca

Vaccine Muddle Is Reputational Risk for AstraZeneca

Friday, 27 November, 2020 - 04:30

AstraZeneca Plc’s work to turn Oxford University research into a widely distributed vaccine against Covid-19 may be financially cost-free for the British drugmaker thanks to funding from outside sources. But it clearly has taken on some additional reputational risk.

The presentation of late-stage trial data this week has become a problem. AstraZeneca and Oxford presented efficacy results that differed for two separate dosages. It wasn’t clear what made one course better than the other.

Then things got more complicated. It emerged the more successful cohort contained people aged up to 55, while the other one included older participants. The delayed dissemination of this information, plus the fact it came not from AstraZeneca or Oxford but the head of the US vaccine development program, has given analysts pause. Many are yet to be convinced that the trial with the higher efficacy result was really robust.

Compounding this, it turns out that the lower dose in one of the trials was unintended (if potentially fortuitous.) The UK’s Mirror newspaper reported this in June, but the oddity was not mentioned alongside the results when the information would clearly have been useful. The error was in the UK trial conducted by Oxford. The university says it discussed the matter with regulators before continuing and has now established reliable methods for measuring the concentration.

The most important question is how all of this affects the battle against the coronavirus. The risk is that these events erode trust and vaccine take-up. Hopefully, some of the issues should become clearer soon when full details of the trials are published in an academic journal.

The right response is to conduct more trials, as Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Sam Fazeli has argued. That is indeed what is likely to happen, AstraZeneca Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot told Bloomberg News on Thursday. He’s confident this won’t delay regulatory approval in Europe. But it’s possible that waiting for more data is necessary, and that lifting restrictions on social interaction is delayed outside the US where there is more reliance on the British vaccine than the alternatives, as Fazeli points out.

If the vaccine’s efficacy turns out to be less high than thought, it will need to be administered more widely to thwart virus transmission. That said, if smaller doses on average are required, there’d be more to go round.

A secondary question is the impact on AstraZeneca as a business. It is in a complicated partnership with academia on a global task, not a discrete, wholly-owned project. The share price, which outperformed on vaccine optimism, is now roughly back to its pre-Covid level. But it’s not clear it’s unyoked from news around trials, even though the core business is all about oncology, cardiovascular and respiratory drugs.

But one thing AstraZeneca does control is how it presents the findings of the results. Soriot can be proud of throwing the weight of the company behind this fight. But he needs to be ultracareful about remotely overselling its successes.


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