Vaccine for all: UK Lab aims to sidestep expensive drug industry to sell its potential COVID-19 vaccine at a cheaper rate

The vaccine’s lower cost could appeal to large donor organizations that supply low-income countries and provide a cheaper alternative in affluent countries.

A prominent British laboratory is forming a special partnership that would sidestep the drug industry to sell a potential vaccine against the coronavirus without profits or licensing fees in Britain and in low- and middle-income countries.

Scientists, nonprofit groups and public health experts have urged that any successful vaccine to combat the pandemic be distributed at the lowest possible cost and on the basis of need rather than profit. But for-profit drug giants or biotechnology startups have dominated the development race, especially in the United States, a vital market because of its high drug prices.

The British laboratory, at Imperial College London, could alter that landscape, in part because its technology has the potential to develop a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to manufacture than others, said Robin Shattock, the lead scientist on the project.

The first coronavirus vaccine to be tested in people appears to be safe and able to stimulate an immune response against the infection. Image credit: CDC

Imperial College London has the technology that has the potential to develop a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to manufacture than others. Image credit: CDC

If successful, he said, the vaccine’s lower cost could appeal to the large donor organizations that typically supply low-income countries, which make up much of the world. It could also provide a cheaper alternative in affluent countries.

“Somebody who’s developing a product that’s going to be of very high cost will actually ultimately lose out if the high-volume market doesn’t support that,” Shattock said.

Clinical trials are beginning this month, and if the vaccine is proven safe and effective, the first doses could be available early next year.

To make the vaccine as widely and cheaply available as possible, Shattock said, Imperial College is creating what it calls a “social enterprise” — a special-purpose, for-profit company chartered to sell the inoculation.

Imperial College is forming the company in partnership with the investment firm Morningside Ventures, which is based in Hong Kong. The new entity will be called VacEquity Global Health.

Imperial College has promised that VacEquity Global Health will make its vaccine available at the lowest possible cost in Britain as well as in low- and middle-income countries. VacEquity would work with specialized drug manufacturers in a process similar to the production and sale of generic drugs.

A clinical trial involving 300 participants in Britain — an unusual combined phase one and two — is set to begin June 15. If that shows the drug to be safe, Imperial College will conduct a 6,000-participant phase in October to test the vaccine’s effectiveness.

David D. Kirkpatrick c.2020 The New York Times Company

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