Fierce JPM Week: Will AZ's coronavirus vaccine turn a profit this year? It's 'too speculative' to predict, exec says

AstraZeneca will consult the World Health Organization and other experts before deciding when to profit off its COVID-19 vaccine. (AstraZeneca)

After AstraZeneca pledged not to profit off its COVID-19 shot during the pandemic, a report emerged that the drugmaker might be ready to declare the pandemic over as soon as July. But according to EVP and biopharma president Ruud Dobber, it’s still “too speculative” to predict when the vaccine may start earning money.

“At this stage, I’m not going to speculate what exactly the date is,” Dobber said in an interview that aired Tuesday as part of Fierce JPM Week. The company is building a capacity of 3 billion doses for countries around the world, and it won’t be until after AZ delivers on its government supply deals that it might “feel open" to selling the vaccine commercially.

“We have just started in the first country vaccinating the people, so we still need to have hundreds of millions of people before we can think about it,” Dobber said, noting that the company would look to the World Health Organization as well as internal and external experts before making a determination.

“Let’s first deliver all the doses, let’s make sure people are getting vaccinated, and then we will decide at a certain stage when we are going to commercialize the vaccine,” he added.

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Luckily for AstraZeneca, the company has plenty of other revenue sources, and it hopes to welcome even more of them in 2021. Dobber singled out lupus candidate anifrolumab, severe asthma prospect tezepelumab and anemia treatment roxadustat—which missed the chance to debut in 2020 when the FDA pushed back its December decision deadline—as its biggest products likely to hit the scene this year.

But if all goes well for AstraZeneca, the pharma giant could soon be bringing a lot more into the fold. In mid-December, it struck a $39 billion deal to buy rare disease specialist Alexion, an acquisition that will bring blockbuster Soliris and follow-up Ultomiris under AZ’s roof if it gets the go-ahead from regulators.

Those drugs could give the company a major boost as it weathers the pandemic, which has depressed diagnostic testing rates in oncology and, in turn, hurt sales of some of the company’s most important products. It’s also hit acute coronary syndrome treatment Brilinta particularly hard, because “even if you have pain in your chest, your willingness to go to the hospital is less at the moment."

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COVID-19 has also hurt AstraZeneca in China, where the company “had a bit of a rough year,” as Dobber put it. The company saw a “sharp decline” in sales of asthma treatment Pulmicort as “parents were reluctant to go to the hospitals in China with their kids.”

“Over time that will become normal again, but when that is, it’s still a little bit unclear,” Dobber said. “Let’s hope that vaccination and the distribution of vaccines will continue to be good, and I really hope that will be the solution moving forward."