LONDON — British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca said Friday it would soon start work with Russia’s Gamaleya Institute to investigate whether their two coronavirus vaccine candidates could be successfully combined.
The announcement comes shortly after the developers of the Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine approached AstraZeneca via Twitter late last month to ask whether they should try combining the two common cold virus-based vaccines to boost efficacy.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund — which has funded the development of Sputnik V — said clinical trials of AstraZeneca’s vaccine in combination with its own would begin by the end of the month.
“Being able to combine different COVID-19 vaccines may be helpful to improved protection and/or to improve vaccine accessibility. This is why it is important to explore different vaccine combinations to help make immunisation programmes more flexible, by allowing physicians greater choice at the time of administering vaccines,” AstraZeneca said in a statement on Friday.
“It is also likely that combining vaccines may lead to improved immunity over a longer period of time,” it added.
AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine, produced in a collaboration with the University of Oxford, is one of several seeking to secure approval from medicine regulators amid rising hopes that a mass vaccination campaign could help end the pandemic.
To date, more than 69 million people have contracted the coronavirus worldwide, with 1.58 million related deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Data published in The Lancet medical journal this week showed AstraZeneca’s vaccine has an average efficacy of 70.4%, based on the pooling of interim data from late-stage clinical trials. The vaccine was also found to be safe and effective.
Russia has claimed Sputnik V is over 90% effective in preventing people from contracting the virus, citing preliminary results from ongoing trials.
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The co-operation between AstraZeneca and Russia’s state-backed science research institute is likely to be seen as a vote of confidence in Moscow’s Sputnik V vaccine.
In August, Russia became the first country to register a vaccine for emergency use, despite warnings from worldwide authorities about cutting corners. It is now being offered to Russians as part of a mass vaccination campaign.
“The decision by AstraZeneca to carry out clinical trials using one of two vectors of Sputnik V in order to increase its own vaccine’s efficacy is an important step towards uniting efforts in the fight against the pandemic,” Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, said in a statement.
“We welcome the beginning of this new stage of cooperation between vaccine producers. We are determined to develop this partnership in the future and to start joint production after the new vaccine demonstrates its efficacy in the course of clinical trials,” Dmitriev said.
Shares of AstraZeneca were little changed for the session on Friday.
The editor-in-chief of The Lancet, Dr. Richard Horton, told CNBC on Wednesday that AstraZeneca’s vaccine had a “distinct comparative advantage” over other leading candidates. He also claimed it was the one likely to be able to immunize the world “more effectively” and “more rapidly” than its peers.
That’s because the AstraZeneca vaccine is thought to be easier to store and distribute than some of the other prospective coronavirus vaccines. It is also cheaper than those being developed by Pfizer – BioNTech , Moderna and Johnson & Johnson .
AstraZeneca has previously been criticized for some of the methods used in their phase three vaccine trials and for the age groups tested. Most of the participants tested in AstraZeneca’s study were younger than 55-years-old, raising questions about whether the vaccine would be effective in older adults, among those highest at risk in the pandemic.
Researchers said in a peer-reviewed paper published Wednesday that further evaluation would be needed in older adults.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine is a viral vector inoculation that is based on a weakened version of a common cold virus (adenovirus) that causes infections in chimpanzees. It is designed to prime the immune system to attack the coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, if it later infects the body.
The Sputnik V vaccine is based on a human adenoviral vector-based platform.