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A pharma giant could price poorer countries out of a British coronavirus vaccine in the future due to a loophole in the non-profit agreement it signed with Oxford University, campaigners have warned – among them one of the first participants in the trial itself.
Volunteer Luigi Ceccaroni has demanded the details of a distribution deal between Oxford University and AztraZeneca be made public, saying he fears the firm could still profiteer from the drug once the first global peak dies down. AstraZeneca told HuffPost UK this week it was “too early to comment on pricing post-pandemic”.
Ceccaroni’s concerns have been echoed by shadow minister for science and research Chi Onwurah, and by campaign group Global Justice Now.
In an open letter, Ceccaroni said there must be more transparency about the agreement between Oxford and AstraZeneca to ensure “free global access” to the vaccine.
“The output of a publicly-funded project should be open and free for everyone,” he told HuffPost UK.
In April, the University of Oxford – which has received tens of millions in government funding for its coronavirus vaccine research – announced a “landmark partnership” with the drug company.
The two parties agreed to develop, manufacture and distribute the vaccine if it was successful, vowing to operate on a not-for-profit basis – during the pandemic.
On Monday, findings of the first phases of the Oxford study suggested the vaccine had shown “promising” results.
The early-stage trial showed the jab is “safe, causes few side effects, and induces strong immune responses”, results published in The Lancet said.
But in an open letter to AstraZeneca chief exec Pascal Soriot and Oxford University’s Professor Adrian Hill, Ceccaroni said: “AstraZeneca has said they will produce the vaccine with no profit during the pandemic but this will be defined by the company and cannot be independently verified.
“This lack of transparency also leaves the door open for the company to profit from this publicly-funded vaccine after the World Health Organisation declares the pandemic is over but the need for a vaccine may still exist.”
He added: “There are also no assurances to me or other volunteers that the know-how and data from the clinical trials will be openly shared to enable any country around the world to manufacture the vaccine themselves.”
Ceccaroni said he and other volunteers signed up for the vaccine trial because they wanted to help defeat coronavirus.
“We, the volunteers, are here because we recognise the importance of a vaccine breakthrough and for it to be made freely available for vulnerable people everywhere,” he said.
The scientist, who works for an environmental NGO, has also called on Oxford University and AstraZeneca to share the vaccine technology with the World Health Organisation and to vow against monopolies that could risk “price gouging and restricted supplies”.
Global Justice Now, which has also campaigned for free access to the drug Remdesivir, has backed Ceccaroni’s call.
Its senior policy manager Heidi Chow said: “Time and again we’ve seen big corporations profiteer off the back of publicly funded research. That mustn’t happen this time.
“Coronavirus must be fought by using public money to guarantee vaccines are free of pharmaceutical monopolies so there are no restrictions on producing and distributing to those most in need, wherever they live.
“With so much at stake, including significant amounts of public funding, AstraZeneca and Oxford University must make their deal public.”
Meanwhile, shadow science minister Onwurah said: “UK life sciences and innovation have powered our economy and made the UK a global leader in medical science.
“Covid-19 is a crisis that requires global cooperation to develop and distribute life-saving medicines to those who need it as quickly as possible.
“The UK government must adopt clear and enforceable policies, including transparency over where UK taxpayers money is going, to ensure genuinely equitable access to Covid-19 health technologies with no unnecessary delay.”
According to an Oxford news release at the time, “both partners have agreed to operate on a not-for-profit basis for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, with only the costs of production and distribution being covered”.
But even after the pandemic is declared over the virus is likely to remain at large. The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told MPs on Thursday: “It is quite probable that we will see this virus coming back in different waves over a number of years.”
AstraZeneca said in a statement it had been “working tirelessly with scientists, governments, multilateral organisations and manufacturers around the world to ensure broad and equitable access at no profit during the period of the pandemic”.
Its spokesperson added: “We have now secured global supply capacity to exceed two billion doses, and the recently announced agreements with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, and the Serum Institute of India will bring the vaccine to low-and-middle income countries, and beyond.
“Intellectual property will not be a rate-limiting step to producing large volumes of the vaccine globally. It is too early to know if this vaccine will be needed on a regular basis in years to come, and it is too early to comment on pricing post pandemic.”