AstraZeneca’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot, has mounted a robust defence of the drugmaker’s Covid-19 vaccine efforts, and said the business should be proud of what it has done for the world and is doing its “very best” to produce more, as the company faces legal action from the EU over delivery shortfalls, and shipments to poorer countries have also been delayed.
The company generated $275m (£197m) in revenues from the Covid vaccine it developed with Oxford University in the first three months of the year and shipped 48m doses to 120 countries through the global vaccine-sharing initiative Covax, 80% of which went to low and middle-income countries. In total, it has supplied more than 300m vaccine doses to more than 165 countries so far this year.
“We don’t regret anything, we haven’t been perfect but we did the very best, we should be proud of what we did in the world,” Soriot said. He added the company was on track to produce 200m doses ready for distribution a month from May.
In India, where Covid cases have soared in a catastrophic second wave, more than 90% of vaccinations are made using the AstraZeneca jab. “Imagine what India would look like if we had not stepped up?” Soriot said. “The world needs this vaccine.”
Most of the vaccine revenues in the first quarter, $224m, came from Europe – as the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker reported overall quarterly revenues up 15% to $7.3bn, better than analysts had expected. New medicines, such as the diabetes drug Farxiga, contributed more than half of the revenues. The firm made a pre-tax profit of $1.6bn, up 72% year on year.
US rivals Pfizer and Moderna expect to make billions of dollars from their coronavirus vaccines but AstraZeneca has pledged to make its jab available on a not-for-profit basis during the current pandemic. It made a loss of three cents a share on the vaccine in the first quarter but expects to break even on the vaccine in the long run.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine is seen as a lifeline for poorer countries, as it is cheaper and easier to store and transport than some of the other coronavirus vaccines being produced.
However, far fewer doses than expected have been delivered through Covax, which is led by organisations including the World Health Organization, as a result of export bans, hoarding and supply shortages. The Indian government has restricted exports from its largest vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute, which produces the AstraZeneca jab.
Soriot said he understood the Indian government’s decision to prioritise its own population. “This pandemic in India has really exploded and it’s something that has caught many by surprise. It’s not clear yet when it will be possible to export again [from India].”
He said AstraZeneca was doing its “very best to produce as much as we can” but added that this depended on how much the cell cultures in its factories yielded. “We can’t tell the cells in the bioreactors to produce more. The cycle to make the vaccine is a very long one, so that’s the limitation.”
This week the EU launched a court case against the pharmaceutical company, after it delivered only about a quarter of the expected 120m doses in the first quarter of this year because of production problems at a plant in Belgium. Soriot said AstraZeneca was “totally committed to increasing supply to Europe” and would deliver almost 50m doses to European countries by the end of April as promised.
The drugmaker also said it would submit the vaccine to the US health regulator for emergency use authorisation “in the coming weeks”, incorporating data from the US and non-US late-stage clinical trials and emerging real-world data.
It had planned to file for approval in the first half of April but putting together all the data has taken longer than expected. Compiling data from almost four months of vaccinations in the UK has added to the complexity of the submission.
US trials showed that the vaccine was 76% effective at preventing symptomatic Covid-19 disease (rising to 85% in those aged over 65), and 100% effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalisation.
Soriot said he expected the negative impact of Covid on the diagnosis and treatment of many other diseases to fade, and anticipated a better financial performance in the second half but stuck to the full-year outlook of low-teens revenue growth at constant exchange rates.
AstraZeneca shares rose 3.5% to £76.56 on Friday morning.