‘AstraZeneca Vaccines in Nigeria are equivalent to any others in the world’

As constraints on supplies continue to affect the delivery rate of COVAX, the global facility for equitable vaccine distribution, AstraZeneca, a central player in the scheme with more than 1 billion doses supplied is looking to scale its reach through partnerships. BARBARA NEL, AstraZeneca’s Country President for the African Clusters in this interview tells BusinessDay’s TEMITAYO AYETOTO about these plans and addresses issues around quality of vaccines taken in Africa so far.

What is new at AstraZeneca in the space of vaccines?

Treating patients is obviously one issue with Oxford around the vaccine. But we are also looking at some other molecules called long-acting antibodies and what they can bring, especially for the very vulnerable groups.

A vaccine doesn’t work for every single patient. So there are certain very vulnerable groups where we actually need to look at a different way of prophylactically protecting them from diseases such as the Covid-19 virus.

In Nigeria, we have a legal entity in Nigeria, which means we are really committed to the country. We are currently working on an expansion plan in terms of expanding our team and the amount of people that we have working for AstraZeneca in Nigeria, especially in areas such as diabetes and oncology.

When I was in Nigeria earlier in the year, we had very productive discussions with the Federal Minister of Health and the wider group around what we can do to also partner and work towards better health care for the Nigerian patient. This obviously, is the key thing that has been keeping us very busy this year as well as the rollout of the vaccine.

How has it been like, supplying several countries especially in a situation where India has stopped exporting to protect their citizens first, affecting dependants like Nigeria?

The situation in terms of vaccinations in Africa at the moment is really very critical. As a multinational, our AstraZeneca vaccine has now been supplied to more than 170 countries. More than a billion doses have been supplied to these countries. We were also the first multinational company that signed up to the COVID scheme and realize this mechanism to get vaccines into our low and middle income countries. So from an African perspective, that is really important. And we did in February and March saw the vaccines flowing in – those first couple of deliveries of which Nigeria also benefited. I remember being in Abuja and in Lagos at that time. I remember being in one of the hospitals in Abuja, with some of the workers waiting for the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. And yes, you are right. The devastating second wave in India and then the subsequent and ban on exports have impacted and what we have seen in Africa.

The key thing is, there was a significant change that happened. And through this process of donations, we saw the Japan summit that happened in June, we saw a combination of governments, NGOs and private companies getting together and basically sponsoring an additional $2.4 billion all vaccines to go into and then also during the G7 summit, we have seen the pledges around vaccinations and donations.

And the key thing is we need to see this further accelerating. We will be working very closely with COVAX. So COVAX makes the decision in terms of how the vaccines are allocated. And what we do know is that they are putting much more weight now also on the vaccination rates in countries. So this means that over the coming months, we will see our African countries really getting to the front of the queue, in terms of doses COVAX needs to distribute. And those will be prioritized for Africa.

Read also: Merck seeks US approval for acclaimed COVID-19 pill

We as a company have also ensured that we will very soon see, probably in the region of another 10 to 15 million doses being earmarked specifically for Africa through COVAX. Nigeria will also see some of those doses flowing in.

What are you doing with the efficacy levels?

I think the other thing that we are doing as an organization is we are also working on what we call a variant vaccine. So this, in a way we can say it’s like version two of the AstraZeneca vaccine with some of these new mutations being taken into consideration.

The very early preliminary data on that is looking very promising, and we will see more of the data around the clinical data gender studies emerging in the next couple of months.

At the same time, let’s look at the version of the AstraZeneca vaccine that we have right now. So you’re currently in Nigeria getting the AstraZeneca vaccine. How effective is that vaccine? Right now, we are seeing a 92 percent protection against hospitalisation and severe disease.

So if you have had two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and that’s also why it’s so important for people to get fully vaccinated, but not just to have one dose, but to have the two doses of the vaccine, they will know even if you do contract COVID-19, it gives you a 92 percent protection.

So I think that it is really positive, despite the variance, we will still see that the AstraZeneca vaccine maintains a high level of efficacy, while at the same time having a very proven and a very clear safety profile as well.

Overall, how many doses has AstraZeneca supplied globally, in Africa and in Nigeria particularly?

Globally, we have committed 1.1 billion doses and I think this for us, getting to that 1 billion level was a real landmark. In the collaboration that we have with the University of Oxford, those 1.1 billion doses have been supplied globally to 170 countries and non profits. You know, and I think for us, this is really, really important. You know, that we are doing this at no profit, this is really AstraZeneca. Together through the partnership with Oxford, this is our contribution globally to how we can combat the COVID-19 pandemic. In Africa, 38 countries in Africa have already benefited from the AstraZeneca vaccine.

We know that two thirds of the doses that has gone through programs have been AstraZeneca vaccines. So we know that at the moment, we are by far, the vaccine that has been used the widest and for the most patients in Africa. And I think that also speaks to this commitment that we have as AstraZeneca we are doing this at no profit.

In Nigeria, I know the first consignment was a couple of million. This is also where then we would expect that through the prioritization programs that we will see substantial amounts continuing to flow into Nigeria.

We’ve seen issues arise with the lack of recognition of AstraZeneca vaccines taken in Nigeria in the European Union largely, as vaccination card become somewhat untenable. What have you done to resolve this? Are there core differences in the vaccines make-up?

Very important question and I think it’s so important that people in Nigeria need to know that the vaccine they are receiving is 100 percent, equivalent to any AstraZeneca vaccine that is made anywhere else in the world.

And maybe just to explain a little bit around that, as AstraZeneca, we are working with partners globally, from a supply chain perspective. So these are partners, for instance, the Serum Institute of India, partners in Latin America, in other parts of Asia, in Europe, that are producing the vaccine, and on behalf of AstraZeneca.

We are working with partners through full technology transfer. So essentially, they produce on our behalf. And by doing it in that way, we keep complete control over the quality, and also the scale and that is why we know that the AstraZeneca vaccine made of the Serum Institute of India, the ones made in Europe, the one that is made in Latin America, they are all equivalent.

Now, the fact that there were some challenges around who is recognising Covishield really stems from the fact that the Serum Institute of India as a supply route was not added to the European application. But we do know now that more than 20 countries in Europe have already added Covishield, or the vaccine produced by Serum to the distribution sites. That is also very much the case with the WHO. So like the WHO says, the AstraZeneca vaccine is effective and safe.

And so you need to be rest assured that it is 100 per cent equivalent. And at the same time, we continue to work with the European Medicines Association in terms of the registration of adding this at EMI level. But at the same time, we have seen that most of the major countries in Europe have already added it to the list of AstraZeneca vaccine.

AstraZeneca has a long record of working with healthcare professionals in Africa, but what is being done about core production here?

I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do for governments in Africa and countries in Africa to look at how they can get that up and running. What we need right now, and this was the decision that AstraZeneca also took, is we need to get the scalability in the reach as far as possible. And that is why in our model, that was described as the stood wave non-for-profit pricing and then working with established and vaccine manufacturers that can quickly scale-up and that we took the route to do it in that way. If we take an institute like the Serum Institute of India, they currently have capacity to produce in the region of about 120 to 115 million doses in a month.

So once again, as soon as that export ban is lifted, you know, we will then have ample volumes that will be able to flow into Africa. Even though it’s frustrating where we are right now, because we are not seeing the doses that we need, and we always go on the donations, but we still know that that supply from COVAX will still be able to serve the African population faster than setting up from scratch to supply. So we need to continue to work on that, because you’re absolutely right, Africa should be more independent, to be able to serve the African population. And but I think we need to do these two things in parallel. We need to continue to work with established manufacturers that can give the doses for what we need right now into the countries as soon as possible.

QUOTE: We are also working on what we call a variant vaccine. So this, in a way we can say it’s like version two of the AstraZeneca vaccine with some of these new mutations being taken into consideration

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.