AstraZeneca creates unit to handle its COVID-19 vaccines, antibody treatments

As AstraZeneca suffered a series of missteps in the development, manufacture and distribution of its COVID-19 vaccine, other companies surged ahead in the race to provide shots to the world.

Was AstraZeneca ill equipped for the monumental task?

With the creation of a new unit responsible for COVID-19 treatments, including vaccines and antibodies, the company is attempting to better manage its response to the pandemic.

Iskra Reic, a senior executive who heads up the company’s operations in Europe and Canada, will take control of the division, allowing CEO Pascal Soriot to manage the company’s bread-and-butter business. The new unit will have R&D, manufacturing, commercial and medical branches.

A company spokesperson confirmed the move, which was first reported by the Financial Times. 

“In order to optimize the management of our existing portfolio of vaccines and antibodies for viral respiratory infections, we are creating a dedicated vaccines and immune therapies unit,” the company said in a statement. “The team will be dedicated to our COVID-19 vaccine, our long-acting antibody combination and our developmental vaccine addressing multiple variants of concern, as well as our existing portfolio for respiratory viral disease.”

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The move indicates that the company believes there’s much to be gained by forwarding COVID-19 treatments, including salvaging the fortunes of its vaccine, which is branded as Vaxzevria.

The shot was approved in Europe in January of this year as a promising alternative to the expensive and difficult-to-store jabs produced by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, but it was soon beset with problems. Reports of very rare but serious blood clotting hindered the rollout. Then, manufacturing snafus prevented the company from adhering to its supply pledges.

Additionally, in its pursuit for getting Vaxzevria authorized in the U.S., the company failed to inform the FDA during a conference call that a trial of the shot had just been halted because of safety concerns. When the FDA got the news hours later, it wasn’t well received considering the U.S. had earmarked more than $1 billion for development of the shot in exchange for 300 million doses.

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AstraZeneca’s vaccine still has not gained authorization in the U.S., and many countries in Europe have restricted or discontinued its use, as the mRNA shots produced by Pfizer-BioNTech—called Comirnaty—and Moderna have come to dominate the market, especially in wealthy countries.

But there still is a waiting market in middle- and low-income countries, where AstraZeneca’s shot could have great value. Additionally, the company’s long-acting antibody treatment for COVID-19 also shows promise in trials as a treatment for those infected and as a prophylaxis.

Despite the problems, AstraZeneca has been a prolific supplier of COVID-19 vaccines, delivering more than 1.8 billion doses to more than 170 countries. Of these doses, 170 million have been provided through the COVAX worldwide relief effort. The figure represents nearly half of the doses delivered through COVAX.