The European Union plans to sue AstraZeneca over vaccine delivery delays. The company is on track to deliver only around 100 million doses to the Continent in the first half of this year, well short of its 260 million-dose commitment, as a new wave of Covid-19 swells across Europe. But AstraZeneca isn’t the root of the problem. It was the company’s partners at Oxford University who, out of a misguided and ultimately deadly idealism, insisted nobody should profit from these vaccines.
Only a year ago the vaccine, developed first by Oxford researchers, was a global front-runner. It showed impressive safety and efficacy (85% among seniors) in trials and was celebrated as the lowest-cost Western vaccine. But it has been beset by embarrassing blunders, poor communication, chaotic trials, major manufacturing hiccups, and, more recently, a tiny number of blood-clot incidents. The shot has yet to be authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and may never be deployed in America. Some of the tens of millions of doses sitting unused in U.S. warehouses have been earmarked as aid to other countries.
The cascade of errors relates closely to Oxford scientists’ trendy denunciations of profit. Researchers from the school’s Jenner Institute planned at first to shun “Big Pharma” involvement. They wanted to produce the vaccine themselves or license it at cost on a nonexclusive basis to any interested company. University leaders quickly realized that a few dozen staff without commercial experience wouldn’t be able to manufacture and distribute a shot to billions globally.
Oxford came close to securing a deal with Merck & Co., the world’s second-biggest vaccine producer, with some $40 billion in annual pharmaceutical sales. Merck had been collaborating with the Jenner Institute since 2018 and has been involved in earlier adenovirus vaccine research in the 2000s. As late as mid-April 2020, Merck was announcing the acceleration of a large-scale manufacturing platform to produce the Oxford vaccine.
Discussions fell apart two weeks later. The Oxford scientists were unhappy with the level of global access Merck were willing to provide, and they demanded Merck provide that access without profit. The scientists demanded that their pharmaceutical partner take on substantial reputational and financial risk without the prospect of reward. This kerfuffle delayed vaccine development by crucial weeks. The U.K. government also had concerns about relying on New Jersey-based Merck, given the possibility of U.S. export bans. Britain insisted on priority for vaccine access.