(Reuters) – British drugmaker AstraZeneca has doubled manufacturing capacity for its potential coronavirus vaccine to 2 billion doses in two deals involving Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates that guarantee early supply to lower income countries.
The deals with epidemic response group CEPI and vaccine alliance GAVI are backed by the World Health Organisation and aim to quell concerns that the company was committing all initial supplies of the vaccine to the developed world.
It is unclear if vaccines will work against the coronavirus but dozens of companies are in the race to develop one, and AstraZeneca’s partnership with Oxford University is one of a handful to be backed so far by U.S. President Donald Trump’s COVID task force.
The White House last month secured 300 million of the first doses of the potential vaccine, named AZD1222, in a deal that also committed more than $1 billion in backing to testing and manufacturing. Britain previously booked another 100 million.
Under Thursday’s deals, the company will supply 300 million doses, starting this year, to CEPI and GAVI as it aims at fair and equitable distribution of the vaccine, Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot said.
He said AstraZeneca had also agreed terms with Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines by volume, to supply one billion doses for low and middle-income countries.
An unspecified part of the vaccine doses produced by Serum will be used in India, with the remainder again to be distributed by GAVI in other lower-income countries, the company said on a call with journalists.
That leaves AstraZeneca with 300 million doses in planned production capacity, which has yet to be earmarked for use.
Astra is open for partners to sponsor even more volumes but it may be nearing a ceiling with plans laid out so far because the risk should be spread across different vaccine technologies, Soriot said.
Experts predict a safe and effective vaccine could take 12-18 months to develop.
The vaccine, previously known as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, was developed by the University of Oxford and licensed to AstraZeneca.
Evidence of immunity to the new coronavirus has yet to be produced in ongoing trials but production will start nonetheless to be ready for mass roll-out once regulatory approval is given.
Soriot did not comment on the odds of the compound to be proven safe and effective, but added that trial results could be available in August, if enough trial participants caught the virus to yield reliable numbers.
“You can’t spend your time wondering is it going to work. We have to commit. That’s what we do in the industry, we bet on something. We are completely committed to the vaccine programme to deliver,” Soriot said.
(Reporting by Pushkala Aripaka and Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru and Kate Kelland in London and Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty, Patrick Graham and David Evans)