The US has an option to later buy an additional 500m doses of the vaccine
The US has an option to later buy an additional 500m doses of the vaccine © REUTERS

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The US has agreed to pay Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline up to $2.1bn to accelerate the development of the experimental Covid-19 vaccine the companies are developing and secure an initial 100m doses.

The majority of the funding will go to Sanofi since the French pharma group came up with the vaccine candidate, which will be paired with GSK’s adjuvant, an extra ingredient designed to boost its effectiveness.

The agreement is part of what President Donald Trump dubbed “Operation Warp Speed”, where the US is aiming to compress the time it takes to bring a vaccine to market from the usual decade to 12 to 18 months.

It is also the eighth deal struck through the US’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (Barda) and brings the total pledged to over $8.3bn, more than any other country or government to date.

Bringing a vaccine to market so rapidly depends on pharmaceutical companies building up manufacturing capacity even as clinical trials to test its safety and efficacy are still under way. Without government support, the industry would not be willing to take such a risk. In such deals, the pharma groups still get paid even if the vaccine does not work.

Sanofi and GSK, two of the world’s leading vaccine manufacturers, said more than half of the money would go to develop the vaccine, including clinical trials in humans that are expected to start in September. The rest would go to ramping up manufacturing.

“The portfolio of vaccines being assembled for Operation Warp Speed increases the odds that we will have at least one safe, effective vaccine as soon as the end of this year,” Alex Azar, US health and human services secretary, said in a statement.

The US also has an option to later buy an additional 500m doses.

Earlier this week, Sanofi and GSK signed a similar deal with the UK, which has agreed to buy 60m doses for an unspecified sum.

The European Commission also said on Friday that it had “concluded exploratory talks” towards a similar advanced purchase agreement for 300m doses that the 27 member states would have the option to purchase. No financial details were disclosed.

But such co-ordinated action is quite new for Brussels since healthcare matters are usually run by individual countries.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said Brussels was in “advanced discussions” with other vaccine makers. “Today’s step with Sanofi is a first important cornerstone of a much broader European vaccines strategy,” she said in a statement.

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As wealthy countries rush to secure supplies of a vaccine, some public health experts have warned that there is a risk that poorer countries will have a lengthy wait. While their efficacy has yet to be proven in clinical trials, scientists have billed the vaccine as the world’s best shot at quelling the pandemic that has killed more than 670,000 people to date, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Other companies that have secured US funding for their experimental Covid-19 vaccines include Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Novovax. The World Health Organization has compiled a list of 25 vaccines that are already in clinical development, and a further 139 that are in earlier-stage research.

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