COVID-19 Vaccine Race: AstraZeneca Trials Halt After Complications

“The difference with other vaccine trials is the whole world is not watching them”

Rabat – The COVID-19 vaccine trials led by British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and Oxford University came to a halt after a participant developed what appears to be transverse myelitis. 

AstraZeneca announced the pause on Wednesday after a British woman who participated developed an unexpected illness. The participant reported serious neurological symptoms that are consistent with transverse myelitis, a rare and serious disorder. 

Paused trials

The final diagnosis of the patient is underway but trials have halted until the details of the woman’s condition are clear. AstraZeneca’s CEO Pascal Soriot presented the pause as a routine safety measure at an event for Tortoise Media on September 10.

Soriot stressed that pauses in trials are a common part of the scientific process and that the pharmaceutical company could still have a COVID-19 vaccine “by the end of this year, early next year.” The stakes are high for AstraZeneca as it has already stated it could produce three billion doses. 

“The difference with other vaccine trials is the whole world is not watching them,” Soriot said, adding that “they stop, they study and they restart.” The AstraZeneca trials involve the participation of 50,000 to 60,000 test subjects around the world and the company hopes to restart them following the woman’s diagnosis.

Vaccine race

The global race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 is moving at a rapid pace. There are currently 25 vaccines under testing in the first phase, 14 have reached phase two, and nine are now in the final phase of testing. 

In the first phase a small group of people receives the vaccine to test whether it triggers an immune system response. The second phase evaluates hundreds of subjects to test for safety and efficacy. The third phase requires thousands of participants and tests for adverse side effects and general safety. The third phase ultimately determines whether a potential vaccine is ready for distribution.

The race has largely devolved into two blocks of developers. On one side are Western pharmaceutical companies and laboratories and on the other the state-funded vaccine development of China and Russia. The latter block is facing accusations from the former of rushing drug development after Russia presented its “Sputnik V” vaccine before its third phase trials had concluded and China distributed a possible vaccine to its military.

Chinese vaccine

Western accusations over a rushed Chinese vaccine primarily relate to a vaccine developed by CanSino Biologics, which the Chinese military approved on June 25. This vaccine differs from the vaccine under testing in Morocco and nine other countries, which China National Biotec Group developed.

Both potential vaccines are authorized for use within China for high-risk groups such as medical staff who work with COVID-19 patients. China is planning to distribute a vaccine “soon” to staff at Chinese consulates and embassies worldwide.

The Chinese laboratories have struggled to find new test subjects in China with its currently low rate of infection. The country reported only 13 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours, out of a population of 1.4 billion.

China National Biotec Group, or SinoPharm, is a Chinese pharmaceutical company funded by China’s state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, the largest economic entity on earth with combined assets of $26 trillion. 

The Beijing-based company began developing its vaccine in April. The potential COVID-19 vaccine has already undergone testing on hundreds of thousands of Chinese subjects and is now in international trials. Besides Morocco the trials will also occur in Argentina, Bahrain, Jordan, Pakistan, Peru, Serbia, and the United Arab Emirates.