The UK approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine has been hailed by scientists and health experts as game-changing step for tackling the coronavirus in the developing world.
Britain's decision to grant the vaccine emergency authorisation is expected to be quickly followed by other countries, with factories primed to make as many as three billion doses around the world.
Within hours of the UK giving the shots the green light, experts from India's own drugs regulator said they would also meet to discuss emergency authorisation. The world's second most populous country has a deal for the Serum Institute of India (SII) to make a billion doses of the vaccine.
The drug was made with technology and funding deliberately aimed at tackling future pandemics and will cost a fraction of existing jabs. Its ease of transport and storage as well as a worldwide manufacturing effort will bring it within reach of hundreds of millions of people in poorer countries.
“Approval of this vaccine is a turning point for the pandemic,” said Prof Helen Fletcher, at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “It has been deliberately developed to have global impact that includes people living in the most fragile and poorest regions of the world.”
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine can be stored at the temperature of a conventional fridge, while the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine approved earlier this month must be stored at -70C.
The British-Swedish pharma giant has agreed to sell the vaccine at cost to developed countries until next summer and in perpetuity to low and middle income countries, after its Oxford University partners insisted on access conditions.
A Belgian official earlier this month mistakenly revealed the difference in costs with other vaccines when she disclosed the EU was paying £10.80 per dose for the Pfizer vaccine and £13.24 per dose for the Moderna vaccine. The EU had meanwhile secured the Oxford vaccine for £1.60 per dose.
AstraZeneca said it was seeking an emergency-use listing from the World Health Organization so that the shot can be made available to low- and middle-income countries as quickly as possible.
Production will be ramped up in countries including India, Russia, Brazil and China. As well as the UK's 100 million doses, America has ordered 300m, the European Union 400m and Japan 120m. Another 170m doses have been set aside for the Covax global alliance set up to ensure that poorer countries do not miss out on Covid-19 vaccines.
Prof Trudie Lang, director of The Global Health Network, at Oxford University, called the UK approval a “tremendous step forward in the collective global effort to get every nation beyond the devastating health and economic impact of Covid-19”.
She said many countries, including the UK, had pledged to ensure the poorest countries would not be left out.
“We now hope that approval of this vaccine in the UK is rapidly followed by regulatory authorities across the globe, so that enacting these pledges now becomes reality. This is more feasible because this vaccine can be stored and transported at normal refrigeration temperatures and is being manufactured in many sites across the world,” she said.
Dr Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI) said the new vaccine was “extremely attractive in that it is inexpensive, scalable, and can be stored at 2-8 degrees Celsius”.
“These attributes will enable its use worldwide, including in low-income and middle-income countries, alongside other safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines. The large supplies that will become available in 2021 mean that this vaccine could be a game changer in terms of our efforts to end the acute phase of the pandemic.”
The Oxford vaccine is expected to be widely used in Africa, where its ability to be stored in normal fridges was likely to make it a leading option, said Prof Greg Hussey, director of Vaccines for Africa, at the University of Cape Town.
“AstraZeneca’s vaccine candidate will be more applicable than Moderna or Pfizer given the fact that we have a system in place to maintain the cold chain. We have a standard programme on immunisation, and a cold-chain system in place for the living vaccines. Every country on the continent has a management system for the cold chain,” he said.
African governments are also thought to be keen to use the drug because it was trialled successfully in South Africa and then in Kenya.