By Alistair Smout and Josephine Mason
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain will buy potential COVID-19 vaccines from U.S. drugmakers Johnson & Johnson <JNJ.N> and Novavax Inc <NVAX.O>, the companies said on Friday, boosting the number of deals it has with drugmakers as the global vaccine race rages on.
Britain and the United States are in the lead with six vaccine deals with drugmakers each, as companies and governments worldwide work overtime to find a vaccine against the pandemic disease.
The latest agreements bring Britain's total number of doses secured to 340 million, with options for millions more, for a population of 66 million.
Britain said both vaccines could be available by the middle of next year for priority groups, such as such as frontline health and social care workers, ethnic minorities, adults with serious diseases, and the elderly.
The deals cover a wide range of vaccine types currently in development for COVID-19, as Britain seeks to hedge its bets should one or more of the technologies prove ineffective.
"For now that is probably the bedrock of the portfolio. We basically need to see now, what we want to add, if anything, immediately that could diversify the sorts of vaccine that we've got in the hopper now," Kate Bingham, chair of UK Vaccine Taskforce, told Reuters.
"I think we're well placed... but I think we need to see the data of some of these early vaccines first before we know what is likely to be protective and what is not."
Johnson & Johnson said its Janssen Pharmaceutica unit will supply Britain with its candidate, known as Ad26.COV2.S, with an initial sale of 30 million doses on a not-for-profit basis for emergency pandemic use.
The advance purchase agreement will also provide an option for an additional purchase of up to a 22 million doses, it said.
Separately, Novavax said Britain would buy 60 million doses of its vaccine candidate, NVX-CoV2373. Novavax will manufacture some of the vaccine using Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies facilities in Stockton-on-Tees, northern England.
Alex Harris, head of global policy at the Wellcome Trust health charity, said the deals put the Britain in a strong position, and urged the government to explain how it will now ensure fair and equitable access to vaccines for poorer countries too.
"Without this...the risk increases that other rich countries will seek to strike similar bilateral deals, potentially ... leaving insufficient volumes of vaccine for the rest of the world," Harris said in a statement.
The Janssen vaccine uses an adenovirus technique to ferry coronavirus proteins into cells in the body, while the Novavax shot uses a technology known as recombinant nanoparticle to produce antigens - molecules that are designed to spur the immune system into action.
Recent studies show the odds of an experimental vaccine making it from early testing in people to regulatory approval are roughly one in three.
J&J said it has also agreed to collaborate with the British government on a global Phase III trial to explore the two-dose regimen of its COVID-19 vaccine, which will run parallel to a Phase III single-dose trials. Britain will also work with Novavax on a late stage British-based trial.
No COVID-19 vaccine candidate has yet been proven effective against the disease, but around 20 are in clinical trials.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Josephine Mason and Kate Kelland; editing by Jason Neely, Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Louise Heavens)