The UK has secured a deal for 60m doses of a fifth potential Covid-19 vaccine, positioning itself as one of the leaders in the global race to ensure vaccine supplies with a total of 250m doses secured so far.
In the worldwide scramble, which has been criticised by campaigners who warn vaccine nationalism will cause billions of people in poorer countries to lose out, the UK, the US and EU are in effect securing their own supplies. Wealthy countries are able to take a gamble, signing deals for vaccines that may not work.
The latest contract signed by the UK is with the British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and its French partner, Sanofi Pasteur, for 60m doses of the Covid-19 vaccine they are developing. It already has deals for 100m doses of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine and for 90m doses of two others.
The hope is that the UK could begin to vaccinate priority groups, such as frontline health and social care workers and those at increased risk from coronavirus, as early as the first half of next year, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said.
Human clinical studies of the GSK/Sanofi vaccine will begin in September followed by a phase 3 study in December. The vaccine is not as far ahead in the development porcess as that being worked on at Oxford University, which is already in large-scale human trials in Brazil and the US, where there are many more infections than in Europe.
The Covid-19 vaccines in development fall into roughly four different groups, according to the technologies on which they are based. The government strategy is to buy several vaccines from each group, Kate Bingham, the chair of the government’s vaccine taskforce, has said.
The government accepts it could lose money on some. If all of them work, “we will be the vaccine supplier to the world”, she said, “but the likelihood is most of these will fail”. The intention was to buy up to 12 vaccines.
The US is intent on ensuring access for its citizens to the first available vaccines and its “America-first” policy will prohibit US companies from supplying them elsewhere in the world until its needs are met. There were promising trial results recently from Moderna, a biotechnology company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which has begun large-scale phase 3 vaccine trials.
The EU is working as a bloc to buy vaccines that are not produced in the US. The commission has secured a deal with AstraZeneca for 400m doses of the Oxford vaccine and is looking to invest in at least five others.
The UK business secretary, Alok Sharma, said: “Our scientists and researchers are racing to find a safe and effective vaccine at a speed and scale never seen before. While this progress is truly remarkable, the fact remains that there are no guarantees.
“In the meantime, it is important that we secure early access to a diverse range of promising vaccine candidates, like GSK and Sanofi, to increase our chances of finding one that works so we can protect the public and save lives.”