BioNTech expands COVID-19 vaccine production while the AstraZeneca vaccine faces yet another set back.

Some of the best news I’ve heard recently is that the developer of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, BioNTech, is doing its best to expand production of its highly effective vaccine. 

The maker of the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine is developing new manufacturing agreements that could give Europe, which is struggling to get vaccine, and even developing countries the ability to get the vaccine amid an apparent rebound in infections.

The EU has been struggling with vaccine shortage  for several reasons. Some manufacturers have fallen behind on their delivery pledges to the bloc. Importantly, the use of the chimpanzee virus COVID-19 vaccine from AstraZeneca PLC, has been stopped in several countries due to safety concerns. In addition, the E.U. was slower than its Western allies in ordering and approving the vaccines, and it has raised tensions between the bloc and the U.K. and the U.S.

As reported in the WSJ, BioNTech SE, the German company that initially worked exclusively with Pfizer Inc. to manufacture and distribute its vaccine, has now developed an alliance of 13 companies, including Novartis AG, Merck KGaA, and Sanofi SA.

After challenging negotiations, the company has now assembled this group of companies, most of them in Europe, and some key rivals to Pfizer, to expand production. BioNTech said it was confident the alliance would allow it and Pfizer to meet their goal of producing two billion doses in 2021.

Under their original agreement with Pfizer, BioNTech supplies Germany, China, and Turkey, while Pfizer covers the rest of the world. So far, BioNTech and Pfizer have sold 500 million doses to the EU, 300 million to the U.S., 120 million to Japan, 110 million to China and its territories, 40 million to the U.K., and 20 million to Canada.

The BioNTech vaccine targets the spike protein, the key part of the virus that mediates the ability to infect human cells. It generates both antibody and cellular immunity to this protein, providing strong protection with minimal side effects.

I have previously argued that Pfizer and Moderna should cross license their highly effective vaccines to vaccinate as much of the world as possible. This will speed the end of the pandemic. Importantly, it will also prevent countries with lesser economic resources from being ongoing reservoirs of COVID-19 infection, breeding mutant viruses that might eventually escape the vaccines.

In contrast, the news for AstraZeneca’s vaccine got even worse last week. While their manufacturing problems have prevented them from meeting their deliveries to the E.U., where the vaccine is approved, the association with blood clots, while not proven, caused the use of the vaccine to be suspended. 

Denmark was the first to temporarily halt use of the AstraZeneca vaccine Thursday after the reports of blood clots in some people. Norway, Iceland, and Bulgaria followed suit and suspended use of the company’s vaccine, which was developed with the University of Oxford.

“Until all doubts are dispelled, and experts guarantee that it holds no risk for people, we are stopping immunization using that vaccine,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov told a Cabinet meeting. 

Given all the issues with this vaccine, it is not clear when “all doubts” about this product can be dispelled.

Published by jbakerjrblog

Immunologist, former Army MD, former head of allergy and clinical immunology at University of Michigan, vaccine developer and opinionated guy.

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