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Sensemaker: Where AstraZeneca went wrong

Wednesday 7 April 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

–Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has 28 days to form a government as his corruption trial begins.

–Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who survived a nerve agent attack, recovered in Germany, and was jailed on his return to Russia, was hospitalised with symptoms of respiratory illness.

–Greenland’s main opposition party won an election which could derail plans to mine the territory’s deposits of rare-earth metals, the world’s largest.

Where AstraZeneca went wrong

AstraZeneca set out to vaccinate the world against Covid. It teamed up with vaccine researchers at the University of Oxford last April. The move was a gamble: Oxford’s researchers were still testing their candidate vaccine for safety and effectiveness. “We think there’s a good chance of course it may fail”, the pharma giant’s chief executive Pascal Soriot had said. “But there’s a good chance it will work”.

Soriot was confident. His company joined Covax, an alliance backed by the World Health Organization to distribute vaccines fairly across the globe. He decided that AstraZeneca was only going to charge enough to cover the costs of the vaccine’s production. That set AstraZeneca apart from the other big drug companies that were set to make billions out of their Covid vaccines. 

At the end of last year, Soriot’s bet was looking good, at least on the surface. Clinical trials showed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was safe and it worked. On 4 January 2021 at 7.30am, an 82-year-old man from Oxford, Brian Pinker, became its first patient. “I can now really look forward to celebrating my 48th wedding anniversary with my wife Shirley later this year”, Pinker said.

But in reality, strategic mistakes were piling up throughout the clinical trials and roll-out process. Things were going wrong for AstraZeneca.

  • It started in September 2020 when the company paused its clinical trials after someone got sick. It is a normal occurrence in trials and AstraZeneca followed best practice in pausing them. But the company didn’t tell safety authorities like the US Food and Drug Administration immediately. People lost trust in the vaccine.
  • They lost some more a few weeks later when the first results of AstraZeneca’s clinical trials showed efficacy somewhere between 62 and 90 per cent. The efficacy depended on how the vaccine was administered. But the company’s explanation of the data wasn’t all that clear.
  • European politicians were clearer. In January, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said the vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” for the elderly. His statement is untrue. More cautiously, a group of European countries, among them Germany, Italy, and Belgium, refused to approve the jab for over-65s, saying there wasn’t enough data to prove it worked on them.

And now, one year since Soriot’s gamble, concerns about rare blood clots have caused European countries to pause their roll-out of the vaccine. A trial on children in the UK was put on hold yesterday.

To be clear, the risk of blood clots caused by the vaccine is extremely low. Among 9.2 million people who received the vaccine in the European Economic Area, 44 cases were detected, 14 of them fatal. It’s a risk of developing blood clots for one in every 100,000 people under 60 who took the vaccine.

It’s riskier to get Covid than to take the vaccine but, with the public’s trust in the vaccine already low, convincing them of this may be difficult. At a vaccination centre in Berlin, which only distributes the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, the number of people turning up for the 3,800 daily appointments has grown but remains far below capacity.

Get your jab, any jab, when you can.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Ice cream for vaccine
Having mobilised successfully against the coronavirus, China now has another mammoth task: mass vaccination. Its goal is to inoculate 560 million people, or 40 per cent of its population, by the end of June. An interesting NYT piece looks at the tactics deployed to achieve this staggering target. On the plus side, the vaccinated qualify for buy-one-get-one-free ice creams. On the other hand, parents in the southern town of Wancheng have been warned that a refusal to get vaccinated will put their children’s schooling and future employment at risk. Even though China is now administering 4.8 million doses a day, its 10 shots for every 100 residents lags behind Britain (56 for every 100) and the US (50 for every 100). 


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Twerking calamity
Miss Papua New Guinea is an impressive 25-year-old woman called Lucy Maino, who is also co-captain of the country’s football team. Like millions of other young people, she uses the video-sharing app TikTok, on which she recently posted a short video of herself twerking. Cue a wave of online harassment and an inexplicable decision by the Miss Pacific Islands Pageant leadership team to strip her of her title. The pageant purports to promote “confidence, self-worth and integrity”. So why is it getting upset when a young woman does a dance video? 


New things technology, science, engineering

Reining in the tech giants
A new regulator starts work today. The Digital Markets Unit is tasked with ensuring that companies such as Facebook and Google don’t abuse their relationships with consumers, news organisations or small businesses. The British government describes it as a “tough new regulator” but at the moment at least, the DMU doesn’t have much power. It can’t fine anyone until Parliament passes legislation (due next year). Eventually, however, it will be able to reverse corporate mergers and force companies to comply with a new code of conduct. As we’ve seen in Australia, where Facebook and Google were pushed into signing deals with news publishers, taking on the tech giants can work.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Break the bank
“In case of climate emergency break glass.” That was what seven female Extinction Rebellion protesters scrawled on the front of the Barclays Bank building in central London this morning. The XR protestors also smashed windows at the Bank to “prevent and draw attention to greater damage” of climate change. It’s unclear whether such tactics bolster or drain public support for the movement – or for combating climate change more generally. A YouGov poll commissioned by Sky found today that almost a quarter of Britons would be unwilling to change key habits to tackle climate change. So maybe we do need to be shaken out of our lethargy. 


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Billionaire bonanza
The world’s richest are having a fabulous pandemic, with their combined wealth surging by $5 trillion since April 2020 and roughly one new billionaire created every 17 hours – many from China and Hong Kong. Forbes has published its list of the world’s 2,755 billionaires and it makes for fascinating reading. Whitney Wolfe Herd, 31, became the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire after her dating app Bumble IPOd in February. Depressingly, most of the wealthiest British-based women inherited their fortunes. Denise Coates, the founder of Bet365, is an exception: her self-made wealth stands at $6.5 billion. 

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Ella Hill
@_EllaHill

Alexi Mostrous
@AlexiMostrous


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