AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson promised to offer their coronavirus vaccines to the US at cost during testimony before a Congressional committee on Tuesday.
UK-based Astrazeneca also said that it would ramp up production of its prospective vaccine – created with Oxford University – to ensure that 300 million doses are available to the US immediately upon its hopeful Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.
Spokespeople for Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Merck all admitted that they intended to profit on the COVID-19 vaccines they are developing, although Johnson & Johnson (J&J) said it would provide its shot at-cost for the duration of the national emergency.
Questioning during the hearing focused largely on the accessibility, supply chain and safety of the vaccine. The firms promised that they would include minority participants in their clinical trials.
They deferred, however, on questions of ensuring the most vulnerable populations have access to their vaccines, referring to US government guidelines and their intentions to follow them.
As trade-tensions between the US and China simmer, all five of the companies also vowed that they would not rely on materials or production for China for their US supply chains – although AstraZeneca hinted that this may not be true for the doses of vaccine it has promised to other countries, like the UK.
As results start to come in from tests of five companies’ coronavirus vaccines, the House Energy and Commerce Committee questioned them on costs, supply chain and accessibility of their shots (file)
The hearing comes a day after both AstraZeneca and Chinese vaccine maker CanoSino reported promising data from their tests of their coronavirus vaccines.
The results of AstraZeneca’s phase I trial, published Monday in The Lancet, showed that about 1,000 participants had two types of immune responses.
Shots triggered the production of antibodies as well as a T cell response.
AstraZeneca’s shares shot up by 5.5 percent on the heels of the journal publication.
But Dr Mene Pangalos, Executive Vice President, BioPharmaceuticals R&D at AstraZeneca was measured in his optimism during the Tuesday hearing.
He noted that the company still does not know how much protection either of those immune responses confer.
AstraZeneca is ahead of the other four companies, in terms of timeline, but US firm Moderna is not far behind.
Moderna’s early studies, too, have returned positive data, suggesting its vaccine triggers an immune response too. It began recruiting subjects for its phase 2 safety trial in May, and intends to dose its first phase 3 efficacy trial patient this month.
Dr Mene Pangalos (left) of AstraZeneca said his company will provide 300 million doses to the US at cost. Johnson & Johnson’s Dr Macaya Douoguih (right) said her company will offer its vaccine at cost so during the national emergency
‘The phase 3 trial is a little beyond our control,’ said Dr Stephen Hoge, President of Moderna, during the Thursday hearing.
‘Assuming able to accrue cases relatively quickly towards the fall or end of year we should be able to submit for [FDA] approval also make millions of doses available by then.’
He said Moderna, which received $430 million from the US government to fund development of its vaccine, hopes to know if its vaccine is safe and effective by the end of the year.
The company is part of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine initiative, but does not have a contract with the US government.
AstraZeneca has receive more than $1 billion in government funding, and has a contract to provide 300 million doses of its potential COVIDs-19 vaccine.
J&J and Merck have received $456 and $38 million, respectively, from the US government to fund their work on coronavirus vaccines, but neither has a contract with the government.
Merck Executive Vice President and Chief Patient Officer Dr Julie Gerberding said that Merck does not plan to sell its vaccine at-cost, indicating the company stands to profit from the shot.
However, Dr Gerberding’s company did promise to offer its considerable manufacturing capacity to support other companies’ production of coronavirus vaccines and treatments.
J&J has agreed to offer its vaccine at-cost for the duration of the coronavirus national emergency, but intends to raise its price after the emergency period is declared over.
When asked about offering the pharma giant’s manufacturing capacity to other companies, Dr Macaya Douoguih, Head of Clinical Development and Medical Affairs for J&J’s Janssen Vaccines department said she that her company would ‘discuss’ that possibility, if its own vaccine failed.
Pfizer, the third titan of industry represented in the hearing, rejected funding from the US.
Representative Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois pressed Pfizer’s Chief Business Officer, John Young, to assure the US the company would not attempt to price gouge, should its vaccine win the race.
Young said the decision to reject funding was made in an effort to speed development.
He did not explicitly address price gouging, but said Pfizer believes that a COVID-19 vaccine should be free to the public.
Merck is the furthest behind in its development timeline, and Dr Gerberding said the company does not yet know if its shot will require one or two doses.
J&J is developing two different candidate vaccines, and aims for at least one of theirs to work in a single dose.
The other three firms – AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer – all anticipate that two doses of their vaccine will be necessary, at least at first.
As the House committee members noted, this means that their promises of millions of doses will actually only be enough to inoculate half that many patients.