When Will the World Have Enough Covid Vaccines?
AstraZeneca Plc, one of the drugmakers on the front lines of COVID-19 vaccine efforts, said earnings growth will accelerate this year as its turnaround efforts pay off.
Profit excluding some items will be US$4.75 a share to US$5 a share, the drugmaker said in a statement Thursday. The range was below the US$5.22 analysts had anticipated, but the guidance excludes the impact of the coronavirus vaccine and the takeover of rare-disease specialist Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc.
Astra has rebuilt a pipeline of key blockbuster drugs, especially in cancer, and stands to benefit even as the COVID-19 outbreak dents drugmakers’ growth prospects by discouraging doctors’ visits. The pandemic also prompted it to join forces with the University of Oxford to develop a vaccine that’s faced criticism while emerging as a crucial tool to help curb infections.
Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot defended Astra’s achievements. “Is it perfect? No it’s not perfect, but it’s great,” he said on a call with journalists. “What we have today is a vaccine that provides 100 per cent protection against severe disease, a vaccine that is well tolerated.”
Astra shares rose as much as 3 per cent in London trading. The COVID-19 shot has been cleared by regulators in more than 50 countries and the company plans to manufacture 100 million doses this month, a number that will double from April, executives said.
The remaining questions facing Astra’s vaccine are about its efficacy in the elderly and its ability to thwart new variants such as the one that first emerged in South Africa. A U.S. vaccine study of roughly 30,000 volunteers is expected to readout in coming weeks, according to Mene Pangalos, who oversees pharmaceutical research. The company is working on adapting the shot to new disease strains.
Pangalos told reporters Astra was hoping to have the next generation of vaccines to tackle variants in the clinic for testing this spring, with plans to make the products available by autumn for protection next winter. The company said it’s trying to reduce the time needed to reach production at scale for the variant vaccines to between six and nine months by using existing data and optimizing the supply chain.
The company expects revenue this year to rise by a low-teens percentage. The vaccine has already delivered US$2 million in sales, and Astra said it will start reporting its revenue separately from next quarter.
Astra may also have another unexpected weapon in the pandemic. One of its older drugs on Wednesday showed potential against the new virus in a small study. Early treatment with the inhaled asthma medicine Pulmicort cut the need for urgent care and hospitalization in the test, which may give it a welcome boost since it was one of the portfolio’s few laggards last year.
The Alexion takeover is due to close in the third quarter. One deal motivator was profitability, the company said when announcing the transaction. The company said Thursday that guidance for the year may be revised once the deal has completed.