If there was to be a week that highlighted the contrasting fortunes of different Covid vaccines, this was it.
On Wednesday, Pfizer, which – with BioNTech – has been the undoubted winner in the effort to get an effective vaccine reliably to market, said it had logged $7.8 billion (€6.6bn) in Covid vaccine sales in the second quarter.
It now expects to sell $33.5 billion of the vaccine this year. That’s almost 30 per cent more than its previous estimate and puts it on course to be one of the best-selling medicines of all time – outpacing Merck/MSD’s cancer blockbuster Keytruda and Abbvie’s inflammatory disease star Humira.
A day later AstraZeneca brought out its figures. The top line sounds good – vaccine sales trebled in the three months. But that brought them to just $894 million.
Although both were first approved in December, Pfizer has so far delivered a billion doses where AstraZeneca has supplied just 319 million. And it notably refused to set a full-year sales target.
The cost price AstraZeneca shot that was supposed to be the Covid killer has clearly struggled. It has yet to formally seek approval in the key US market, and the EU has stepped back from any further supply deals amid an ongoing legal dispute over existing commitments.
To make matters worse, senior executives at the Anglo-Swedish group confirmed publicly that there is an ongoing conversation within AstraZeneca on whether it should abandon the vaccine market altogether. Ruud Dobber, head of its biopharmaceuticals business, said that if the vaccine business were to be sustainable, the company needs to stop making a loss on it.
The vaccine may be AstraZeneca’s second biggest selling drug this year – even if it is bringing in less than half the $2.54 billion generated by the lung cancer drug Tagrisso – but it is a drag on earnings. And investors are speculating none too quietly about the sense of getting involved in a project that makes no money and in a sector where the company had no experience.
University of Oxford had a vision of helping the world get over a deadly pandemic by selling its tremendous research work and discovery at cost. But, with a partner that has yet to comprehensively address supply and market access issues – to say nothing about side effects – that hope is receding. And so, for AstraZeneca, is the logic for getting involved in the first place.