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These are exciting times for AstraZeneca, the UK biotech company currently at the forefront of the race to vaccinate the world’s population against the potentially killer virus.
More than 140 teams of researchers around the world are currently working around the clock to produce an effective vaccine in record time and on Monday of this week AstraZeneca's phase I trial results, published in The Lancet medical journal, showed that volunteers given the vaccine had shown two types of immune responses; producing both antibodies as well as a T cell response.
When Oxford University’s world-renowned vaccinology centre, the Jenner Institute, chose AstraZeneca as its partner to develop and manufacture the potentially ground-breaking vaccine it was an interesting choice. GlaxoSmithKline, the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer by sales, would have probably been the more obvious partner. But Monday’s trial results proved that partnering with AstraZeneca was a good decision.
However, just seven years ago, the idea that AstraZeneca would even still be a major player in the industry would have been doubtful. Its ongoing battle with lapsing drug patents meant it was falling from favour fast. Despite having long been the one of the two main flag-carriers for the UK’s feted excellence in life science (the other being GlaxoSmithKline) AstraZeneca’s fall from grace appeared to be on the cards. So much so, that an opportunistic £55-a-share bid by US rival Pfizer back in 2014 left it fighting for its survival.
Chief executive Pascal Soriot has been largely credited with AstraZeneca’s resultant - albeit slow and not always certain - turnaround; with it producing a string of blockbuster cancer drugs under his tenure, that have catapulted it to the industry’s front ranks. Success with the Covid 19 vaccine would only cement its position back at the head of the pack.
But, as I already mentioned, that has not always been the case. Just a month before he took the helm in October 2012, AstraZeneca’s market value stood at £36.6 billion, just over half of Glaxo’s £70.9 billion. In recent weeks it has become the UK’s most valuable company by market capitalisation, at £115.5 billion against Glaxo’s £81.25 billion.
AstraZeneca had orders secured for at least 400 million doses of the vaccine, well before the phase 1 trials had even been completed, as well as $1 billion in funding from the US health department. It says it has the capacity to manufacture 2 billion doses, which it will need to be able to do, with similar signed agreements to the US one already with the UK and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, the global vaccine alliance.
This week, AstraZeneca said that it would ramp up production of its prospective vaccine to ensure that 300 million doses are available to the US immediately upon its hopeful Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.
But the Covid vaccine is not all its success rests on. Having fought off Pfizer and built global leadership in ground breaking oncology treatments, AstraZeneca has a bright future ahead in the manufacture and commercialisation of a new generation of vaccines; a market worth close to $60 billion a year and set to grow by 7% annually, between now and 2024.
AstraZeneca had something of a chequered history of late. But its highly successful shift into the fertile ground of oncology and now in the battle against Covid 19 as well, shows it has the ability to swiftly up its game in a sector that where success so often lies in innovation. Which is something AstraZeneca is proving it has, in spades.
According to data provider EvaluatePharma, by 2022 AstraZeneca is expected to return to the ranks of the world’s top 10 pharma companies thanks to its new blockbuster drugs. And by 2026, with annual drugs sales forecast to grow at roughly twice the rate of Glaxo’s, it should leapfrog its UK peer.
For now, all eyes will be on AstraZeneca’s success with the Covid vaccine. But as Adam Barker, pharmaceuticals analyst at Shore Capital, says, AstraZeneca is already certain to be front of collaborators’ minds when it comes to novel therapeutics.
AstraZeneca is due to post half-year results on Thursday.
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