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Bumpy road

9 September 2020 By Aimee Donnellan

AstraZeneca’s vaccine setback could be the first of many. The $144 billion drugmaker slammed the breaks on a global trial for its Covid-19 remedy after a participant fell ill. Activating such safeguards is fairly routine, but the news may still dent hopes of a fast cure for the coronavirus.

On Tuesday night, AstraZeneca voluntarily halted all global trials for its vaccine after a participant suffered an unexplained illness. This has now triggered an independent review, with an indeterminate timeline. AstraZeneca Chief Executive Pascal Soriot is hoping to expedite the review, but the news is a blow for the Covid-19 fight. The vaccine, which AstraZeneca is developing alongside the University of Oxford, was described by World Health Organization as probably the world’s leading candidate and the most advanced.

The consequences for other vaccines could also be bad. AstraZeneca’s drug was arguably at higher risk of some kind of negative reaction: It uses a technology that piggybacks on another live virus, potentially complicating the body’s reaction. It uses a chimpanzee common cold virus to inject Covid-19 into cells and stimulate the immune system to fight a real infection. While the vaccines developed by companies like Pfizer and Moderna use different technology, there is a risk they also have to be suspended to make sure there are no similar side effects. News of a bad reaction may also discourage people from signing up to trials.

It could also be bad news for governments. Many have pre-ordered billions of doses of inoculations from drug companies in the hope a vaccinated population will be more willing to venture out into cinemas, airplanes and offices. U.S. President Donald Trump has even talked of a vaccine before the election in November. Yet Astra’s setback is reminder that developing inoculations is a slow process: the fastest so far has been four years.

Without a rapid vaccine, social restrictions are likely to endure. Governments may need to impose local shutdowns, and travel curbs, while workers will shun crowded offices. That all points to more economic hardship. Drug companies also stand to lose. Moderna and BioNTech have gained $18 billion in market value since the start of the year in hope of a speedy rollout. There is no remedy for investor exuberance.


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