(This Feb 11 story corrects to show CEO was referring to vaccine production not efficacy in headline, first and 4th paragraphs)
(Reuters) – The production of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine has not been perfect but the shot will have a big impact on the pandemic, its chief executive said on Thursday, as the drugmaker pledged to double output by April and the African Union gave its backing for the shot.
The two-dose inoculation, developed with Oxford University, has been hailed as a “vaccine for the world” because it is cheaper and easier to distribute than some rivals.
But its rapid approval in Europe and elsewhere has been clouded by doubts over its most effective dosage and interval between doses.
Data at the weekend also showed it was less effective against a fast-spreading variant of the virus in South Africa, prompting the country to pause rollout of the shot. The company has also been embroiled in a row with the European Union over supply delays but Soriot said AstraZeneca was working to ramp up output as fast as possible.
“Is it perfect? No, it’s not perfect, but it’s great. Who else is making 100 million doses in February?” CEO Pascal Soriot said on a conference call about the vaccine.
“We’re going to save thousands of lives and that’s why we come to work everyday.”
The company said it aimed to produce more than 200 million doses per month by April, double this month’s level as the world tries to tame a pandemic that has killed 2.35 million.
Head of operations Pam Cheng said on the call that the group was working to further expand global capacity and productivity.
AstraZeneca has set a target to produce 3 billion doses this year, with India’s Serum Institute making much of that aimed at poorer nations.
On Wednesday, the company enlisted Germany’s IDT Biologika as a contract manufacturer, but the bulk of IDT’s contribution will only come onstream late next year.
AstraZeneca said it expected much-anticipated data from the U.S. trial of the vaccine before the end of March, and that it was confident the shot offered relatively good protection against severe disease and death for the South African variant. Its disappointing results were against milder cases.
However, after rising to become Britain’s most valuable company last summer, the company has now slipped to sixth, in a move some analysts attribute to doubts over the vaccine.
“In a year or two we will look back and everybody will realise we made a big impact,” Soriot said.
AstraZeneca’s shares were up 0.95% in afternoon trade, paring some earlier gains, after the company forecast a pick up in earnings growth this year on strong demand for its cancer and other new therapies.
It has pledged not to make any money from its COVID-19 vaccine during the pandemic.
It has been a tumultuous week for the drugmaker after South Africa put on hold giving the shot to its citizens, choosing one developed by its U.S. rival Johnson & Johnson instead.
That came after the trial data raised concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine’s effectiveness on mild symptoms from the more infectious 501Y.V2 variant of the virus dominant in South Africa, which has spread to 41 nations around the world.
Despite that blow, the World Health Organization endorsed the British vaccine on Wednesday and the African Union said it would target its use in countries that have not reported cases of the variant.
Kenya and Morocco are also planning to administer it.
AstraZeneca said it expected 2021 revenues to rise by a low teens percentage and core earnings of $4.75 to $5.00 per share, as it beat expectations for fourth-quarter sales.
The earnings guidance equates to 18-24% growth, after 15% in 2020, but was a little lower than the $5.10 per share analysts were expecting, as the company flagged more spending this year.
The COVID-19 vaccine is not included in the guidance and the company said its sales would be reported separately from the first quarter of 2021.
While public interest is focused on the vaccine, AstraZeneca’s core business of diabetes, heart, kidney, and cancer medicines has been steadily growing, helping the company to turn around years of decline.
“The company is arguably the poster child for big pharma turnarounds,” said Third Bridge senior analyst Sebastian Skeet.
(Graphic: AstraZeneca shares vs rivals – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/yzdvxwdwwpx/AZ%20chart.PNG)
(Reporting by Pushkala Aripaka and Ludwige Burger. Editing by Josephine Mason and Jon Boyle)