Pascal Soriot: “It is not true that we divert the vaccine from Europe to other countries to make a profit” | Society


AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot in a 2018 image.
AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot in a 2018 image.Simon Dawson / Bloomberg

Pascal Soriot (Paris, 61 years old) assumes full responsibility for the announced reduction in vaccines that AstraZeneca will supply to the European Union in the coming months, but strongly refutes the suggestion that the pharmaceutical giant is diverting its production to other countries in search of greater profit. The executive director of the Anglo-Swedish laboratory, which has become in the forefront of the sector in 10 years, has enjoyed these months the honey of being at the forefront of a hopeful project for humanity. It is now up to him to face the suspicions and misgivings of the governments, who want the vaccine now and are not willing to easily accept excuses or setbacks. The European Commission has even threatened to tightly control vaccine exports. Soriot attends LENA, an alliance of the main European newspapers of which EL PAÍS is a part, from his residence in Australia.

Question. AstraZeneca has not been very specific so far in explaining the causes of late deliveries. What exactly happened?

Reply. Production of the vaccine requires two phases. In the first, the vaccine itself is produced. What we call the drug substance. Once finished, it is transferred to different plants where the vaccine is distributed in vials. That is the end product. In Europe, we produce the drug substance in two plants, one in the Netherlands and one in Belgium. The transfer to roads is carried out in Italy and Germany. In this second phase, our capacity is full. There are no problems. These have arisen in the manufacture of the substance.

P. Problems that could be foreseen?

R. Basically, we have cell cultures. Huge 1,000 or 2,000 liter tanks. We inject the virus and it is those cells that produce the vaccine. It is a biotechnological production process. Some tanks have high performance and others low performance. In Europe, in particular, one of the plants – as in the United States – has been underperforming. Basically, it responds to the fact of increasing the scale of production as we are doing, which has never been done until now. We are talking about billions of doses at high speed. Our best plant produces up to three times more vaccine in its tanks than the worst of the plants. It was bad luck. There is no mystery about it. The plants with the lowest yields are those that supply Europe. We have not done it on purpose. I am European, I carry Europe in my heart. And our president is Swedish, also European.

P. But was it predictable then?

R. We adopted the manufacturing process that Oxford University gave us, which was producing a good vaccine, but not on an industrial scale. It could only produce quantities for its clinical trials. We had to modify the process to be able to produce billions of doses. At a reasonable cost and speed. We had to carry out technology transfers. Train each of our partners in the new process. Some were new to all of this, and not as effective as others.

P. The UK is to receive all the doses it ordered.

R. Because the UK signed the contract three months before the EU. We had that extra time to readjust all the faults that we were detecting. Would I have liked everything to be better? Of course. But if we deliver the quantities we have planned in February, it will not be a small volume. We are going to deliver millions of doses to Europe. We take full responsibility for what happened. We want to improve and we have thousands of people working at full capacity. Many did not even enjoy their Christmas holidays. I’m not asking you to feel sorry for us, but we do the best we can. It is a complicated process and on a large scale.

P. It ensures that the EU will receive a reasonable number of doses in February. Can you put a number on that?

R. As soon as we get approval [de la Agencia Europea del Medicamento]In the next few days, we will immediately send three million doses to Europe. The next shipment will be a week later, and then another one in the third or fourth week of February. The goal is to deliver 17 million doses in February. That will mean approximately three million for Germany, 2.5 million for Italy and about 2 million for Spain, for example.

From February onwards we will be able to produce about 100 million doses per month, which is not a small amount. Most vaccines have a production of 100 million a year. That will bring us to an annual rate of 1.2 billion doses. And it will continue to grow. Europe is going to take 17% of production in February, despite representing 5% of the world population.

P. The European Commission wants to control exports of vaccines from the territory of its partners. There is a suspicion that AstraZeneca is selling to other countries in search of a higher economic profit.

R. That suggestion is simply not true. We don’t make a profit anywhere. That was the initial approach. That was what was agreed. That was the pact with the University of Oxford. This is how the contract was drawn up. The slight geographic variables in the price depend on the cost of the raw material. We have a supply chain in Brazil, another for Latin America and another for Southeast Asia. Local costs are different. But, more or less, the cost is three or four dollars everywhere.

P. But the suspicion exists, it is evident.

R. Governments are under great pressure. Everyone is being very emotional about this matter. I get it. People want to be vaccinated. She’s tired. Europe’s population has been under severe stress for a year. I understand the complaints of the European Commission, because it is managing the process for all of Europe. But I assure you that it is not true that we are taking their vaccines from Europeans in order to sell them more profitably elsewhere. It would be something that would not make any sense and would spoil the spirit of the initial agreement.

P. Do you see the point in controlling exports?

R. We need to vaccinate as many people as possible around the world. If you let the virus spread, it will multiply and mutate in different populations. That is why it is important, as the EU itself has said, that global supply is ensured quickly and fairly. That now they say that they are going to control exports is the opposite of what they said a few months ago. Our supply chains have a regional scheme, but we also manage that supply in a global way.

P. Some country, such as Italy, has threatened legal action against AstraZeneca.

R. I do not want to pass any judgment on what has been said or not said. I can tell you what was stated in the contract, which was very clear. Our commitment was, and I quote, that we would do our best effort (our best effort). There are a lot of emotions at stake right now, and I understand that. People want the vaccine now. Now. Today. But it is a complicated process. We are reaching the goal. In two or three months we will achieve the intended production scale.

P. And are you not considering redistributing current production? Couldn’t some of the vaccines produced in the UK be shipped to the EU?

R. The contract with the UK was signed three months before that of the EU, as I have told you. You can imagine that the British Government wants the supplies produced there to go there first. And that’s how it is. In the agreement with the EU it is mentioned that British plants may be an option for Europe, but later. The vaccine was developed with the Government of the United Kingdom, through the University of Oxford. They established that the first supplies would be for them, and I think that’s fair.

P. If we finally assume there will be vaccine delays, would the UK’s strategy of extending the time between the first and second doses to 12 weeks make sense to protect more people?

R. I think the UK strategy is absolutely correct, at least with our vaccine. I can’t comment on the one from Pfizer, whose studies were conducted over a three-week interval. In the case of AstraZeneca, we believe that the efficacy of a first dose is 100% against possible severe illness and hospitalization and 71-73% overall. The second dose is for long-term protection, and is more effective if given later. Our technology is different. At the genetic level of antibody production, it is higher if the second dose is received two or three months later.

P. Will your vaccine protect against the South African variant of the virus?

R. Moderna’s vaccine, according to the data they have published, has a lower neutralizing effect on the virus, but they believe that it is still high enough, much more than that developed by those who have already had the disease. We do not yet have the results of the study – we will have them soon – but I think it is logical to expect them to be similar. And we are also working with the University of Oxford to give a specific answer to that variant, which should be ready by September.

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