Amid the ocean of corporate profiteering and cronyism during the Covid pandemic over PPE, ventilators, oxygen supplies, and test and trace schemes, AstraZeneca stands out from the crowd.
Together with scientists from the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford, the Anglo-Swedish firm and its staff are among the true heroes in the battle to control — and ultimately conquer — a devastating disease that has claimed so many lives worldwide.
And yet, beyond Britain, it has won few plaudits for its rapid development of a cheap, easy-to-store and transport ‘workhorse’ vaccine on which millions, particularly in the developing world, will depend.
Instead, AstraZeneca has been on the receiving end of a sustained and systematic campaign to undermine public confidence in its jab. Politics, spite and greed are a toxic but powerful mix when deployed by those with a self-serving agenda and a global platform on which to promote it.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pictured speaking during a debate on the second day of a plenary session at the European Parliament in Brussels on April 27
And in recent months, President Macron in France and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, frustrated by the PR disaster of the European Union’s failings in the procurement and roll-out of vaccines, have rarely missed an opportunity to disparage the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
When concerns were raised about a possible link with rare blood clots, they seized upon it as proof their doubts about it were well-founded.
Even when the World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency decreed that the risks of Covid-19 far outweighed any risk posed by the vaccine, the whispering continued.
It was effective. This month there were reports of hundreds of thousands of doses going unused in Europe because of falling confidence that some cynical Eurocrats were doing so much to promote.
Now, in a move that is nothing short of venal, Brussels has launched legal action against AstraZeneca for its alleged failure to supply sufficient quantities of the very vaccine that key member states had decided they didn’t trust! Yes, AstraZeneca has fallen behind in its contractual promise to deliver 300 million vaccine doses by June and acknowledges that, in the uncertain times when it signed its deal with European Commission’s President Ursula Von der Leyen, it was overly optimistic.
But it is totally unacceptable for the EU and its leaders to continue to treat AstraZeneca as a political football in such a way that jeopardises even further the slow roll-out of vaccines for the greater good.
So why can’t Macron, Merkel et al give credit where credit is due? Let’s not forget that Britain’s other big pharma company, GlaxoSmithKline, with vast vaccine experience, steered shy of the Oxford vaccine development project, preferring to rely on its own expertise — with little success so far.
It was AstraZeneca’s French chief executive Pascal Soriot who rose to the challenge from a standing start. AstraZeneca had little or no vaccine experience and precious little manufacturing capacity of its own.
In the dark days of the first wave, Soriot and his workforce strained every sinew to bring the Oxford vaccine to clinical trials and then promised to make the first three billion doses available at cost price.
This was a near first in the drugs industry, which for decades has been under attack from critics on the Left for taking advantage of the less well-off through exorbitant prices for new medicines.
Why can’t Macron, Merkel (pictured in Berlin, Germany, on April 26) et al give credit where credit is due?, writes Alex Brummer
Moreover, in parallel with developing the vaccine in record time — less than a year, against a decade or more for historic inoculations — large- scale trials were set up not just in the UK but in Brazil and South Africa.
In addition, the firm scoured the world for production facilities, signing contracts with the Serum Institute in India and U.S. vaccine suppliers, as well as setting up new labs in Britain and Europe.
It was a Herculean task and one undertaken not just for shareholders, as in the past, but for humanity.
AstraZeneca and the Oxford scientists who led the vaccine research, Prof Sarah Gilbert and Prof Adrian Hill, also made it a priority to ensure that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) was involved at every stage, so that if and when the jab was ready, approvals could be fast-tracked and the drug supplied to the NHS, EU countries and elsewhere.
Indeed, the Oxford Covid vaccine was an ideal opportunity to show the MHRA’s fleetness of foot in comparison with its EU counterpart, the bureaucratic European Medicines Agency which moved from London to The Hague after Britain voted to leave the EU.
Yet it was evident almost from the outset that Europe’s disdain for the Oxford/AstraZeneca injection and then the lengthy regulatory delays in the U.S. were as much about politics as efficacy.
Macron dismissed it as ‘quasi-ineffective’ in people over 65. Initial guidance in Germany concurred but then changed when it was claimed it might cause problems among younger populations. There is no question that the short suspension in the distribution of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab while scientists investigated cases of rare blood clots in some recipients harmed confidence in the UK and beyond.
French President Emmanuel Macron (pictured attending a Climate Summit video conference in Paris on April 22) dismissed it as ‘quasi-ineffective’ in people over 65
However, preliminary regulatory data shown to the Daily Mail shows fatalities across the globe among those who have received the rival Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are more than twice that of AZ and a third higher among recipients of the American Moderna vaccine. Which brings us to the crux of this PR vaccine war. At the core of the attacks on AstraZeneca is economics.
The WHO described the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab with an average cost of $5.00 (£3.60) a dose as a ‘vaccine for the world’. It wasn’t seen like that in the U.S. where the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were priced at £15-£28 a dose, delivering huge profits for the manufacturers and helping U.S. jobs.
Hence it comes as little surprise that in Washington, where lobbyists often have the upper hand, that there were lengthy delays in approval of the UK jab while the U.S. immunisations were fast-tracked.
It has been shameful to hear leading European politicians such as Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts frothing at the mouth in anger, describing the company as ‘dishonest’ over vaccine deliveries.
At the same time, Italian inspectors are making politically charged claims that AstraZeneca secretly stockpiled 29 million doses. The damage from these criticisms has been considerable.
AstraZeneca has been on the receiving end of a sustained and systematic campaign to undermine public confidence in its jab (file photo)
Matters have not been helped by the absence of Pascal Soriot, who was awarded a £15.4million pay package for 2020, partly for his work on a Covid vaccine. Late last year, after nine months locked down in London, he retreated to the family home in Sydney.
In retrospect that might not have been the wisest decision and the drug firm could have used his considerable persuasive skills to challenge critics.
He has conceded the need to return and is expected back in London next month.
AstraZeneca is one of our most valuable enterprises with a stock market value of £100 billion. But there is work for Soriot and his team to do to make the world love, and use, its ‘workhorse’ vaccine.