AstraZeneca's (NASDAQ:AZN) coronavirus vaccine program is one of six that have reached phase 3 clinical trials, the last step before regulatory approval. So we can fairly say the big pharmaceutical company is a leader in the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA) is another leader, as are Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) and biotech company BioNTech (NASDAQ:BNTX), which are collaborating in their efforts. Two Chinese companies complete the list of top players.
Considering the competition, one might ask whether AstraZeneca has a chance of winning this race. It's impossible to predict which company will bring a vaccine to market first. But we do have some clues about each company's possibilities moving forward.
Here are three green flags for AstraZeneca's future in the coronavirus vaccine space.
1. Solid early data
AstraZeneca recently reported positive data from phase 1 of its phase 1/2 trial on healthy volunteers aged 18 to 55. The company gave one dose of the investigational vaccine to 533 volunteers, and two doses to 10 volunteers. The control group included 534 participants.
The results sound promising. One type of analysis showed that 91% of volunteers produced antibodies capable of neutralizing the virus. According to a more stringent analysis, 37% produced neutralizing antibodies. And this more stringent analysis showed the strength of the two-dose vaccination: All participants who took it produced the antibodies. Antibody levels in participants were similar to those of recovered coronavirus patients, the researchers said. The study also showed an increase in participants' T-cells, which the immune system uses to fight infection.
Though AstraZeneca still has to demonstrate these results in larger groups and across age ranges, the initial report is encouraging. The company has since moved into its later-stage trial, and investors will keep an eye on how the next batch of results compares with what we've seen so far. AstraZeneca now aims to test the vaccine candidate in more than 10,000 volunteers, including age groups of 5 to 12, 56 to 69, and over 70.
2. Operation Warp Speed funding
In May, Operation Warp Speed (the U.S. government's program to accelerate development of a coronavirus vaccine) offered as much as $1.2 billion toward the development of AstraZeneca's vaccine candidate. That's the program's third-biggest award, after $2.1 billion granted to the Sanofi (NASDAQ:SNY) and GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) collaboration and $1.6 billion to Novavax (NASDAQ:NVAX).
Although Operation Warp Speed is a government effort to support the most promising vaccine candidates and bring a vaccine to market by January, this funding alone doesn't mean the investigational vaccine will be safe and efficacious. Only clinical trials will determine that. But the federal support does lessen the financial burden for vaccine developers. AstraZeneca said government funding would offset some, if not all, of the costs associated with its coronavirus program.
3. Supply deals with countries
As part of the Operation Warp Speed deal, AstraZeneca will supply at least 300 million vaccine doses to the U.S. The company will also supply as many as 400 million doses to Europe through the Inclusive Vaccines Alliance, and it has reached supply agreements with other organizations as well. The company said it won't take a profit during the pandemic and will make its vaccine widely available. Again, AstraZeneca said government funding makes this possible without adding to the company's expenses.
AstraZeneca hasn't spoken of possible post-pandemic profits. But one can imagine the company may decide to benefit from coronavirus vaccine sales at a certain point. As long as that doesn't mean a major increase in the vaccine's price, it's likely countries and organizations now working with AstraZeneca will continue to do so. That means good relationships today may result in greater future revenue for the pharmaceutical company. This is important because more than one company, depending on trial results, may bring a coronavirus vaccine to market. AstraZeneca's partnerships may give it a key edge.