AstraZeneca has said it expects to have a new version of its COVID-19 vaccine ready for use by mid to late 2021, responding to concerns about emerging variants of the disease that may be more transmissible or resistant to existing vaccines.
The Anglo-Swedish company, which makes a vaccine developed by the University of Oxford, said on Thursday that researchers began the work on the updates months ago when the new variants were first detected.
“We’re moving fast and we’ve got a number of variant versions in the works that we will be picking from as we move into the clinic,” Mene Pangalos, head of biopharmaceuticals research for AstraZeneca, said on a conference call with reporters.
The comments came as CEO Pascal Soriot defended the company’s efforts to develop and ramp up production of the shot amid criticism from the European Union and a preliminary study that raised concerns about the vaccine’s ability to combat a variant of COVID-19 first discovered in South Africa.
The EU last month sparred with AstraZeneca after the company cut initial deliveries of the vaccine to the bloc because of production problems.
Although the European Medicines Agency approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for use by everyone over 18, some European countries, including France and Germany, have recommended that people over 65 not receive the shot due to limited data on its effectiveness in older people.
Just this week, researchers released preliminary results from a small-scale study in South Africa that found that the vaccine did little to prevent mild to moderate cases of the disease caused by the variant prevalent in the country. The study also looked solely at healthy young people.
But Soriot stressed that the vaccine is very good at preventing severe disease and death, which is the most important goal.
“We could get lost in a lot of details about this and that, but you have to look at the big picture,” Soriot said.
“And the big picture is today we have a vaccine that has been approved by several important regulators, all these scientific questions have been adjudicated by the regulators … This month we’re going to manufacture 100 million doses; in April 200 million doses.”
‘Not walking away’
Meanwhile, the head of Africa’s disease control body said on Thursday that the African Union (AU) would not be “walking away” from AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine but will target its use in countries that have not reported cases of the B.1.351 variant that has become the dominant strain of the virus in South Africa.
The comments came after South Africa paused the roll-out of the vaccine, saying on Wednesday that it could seek to sell or swap its AstraZeneca shots.
The country will use an alternative from Johnson & Johnson to start protecting healthcare workers later this month.
African countries are due to receive 100 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine this year under an AU vaccine plan.
John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told a virtual news conference: “For now our strategy is not to throw away our 100 million doses, but rather target countries that as we indicated have not reported cases of that specific variant.”
He said only six countries other than South Africa had reported that the variant was circulating.
“You still have an extensive number of countries that can benefit from those vaccines, so we will not be walking away from AstraZeneca vaccines at all.”
Kenya said on Thursday that it would move ahead with plans to use the AstraZeneca shot.
Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization Africa director, said the WHO was briefing African countries on a recommendation by its SAGE panel of experts to use the AstraZeneca vaccine, even in countries where the B.1.351 variant may reduce its efficacy.
She said interactions with countries neighbouring South Africa were “particularly intense” after eSwatini said on Tuesday that it would not use the AstraZeneca shots.
“While a vaccine that prevents against all forms of COVID-19 illness is our biggest hope, preventing severe cases and hospitalisations which overwhelm … health systems is crucial,” Moeti told another news conference.