The US just bought 400 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine that may never exist

High dose of confidence.
High dose of confidence.
Image: Reuters/Anton Vaganov
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It’s hard to imagine anything that could matter more to the future (and present) of the global economy than a coronavirus vaccine, and the US is betting hard one is going to be available soon.

Although US president Donald Trump’s hopes that a vaccine would be ready for widespread use by the end of the year (if not earlier, as he had previously suggested) is unlikely to come true, several pharmaceutical companies have encouraging early results, and have started testing potential vaccines.

Through its  Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), the US has invested heavily in several vaccine development programs, doling out over $2.1 billion to pharmaceutical companies—both US-based and international—working on coronavirus vaccine development. So far, the grants are supporting vaccine development, testing, and scaling of production.

BARDA, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, was created in 2006 with the mandate to invest in research to strengthen the US’s preparedness against biomedical threats, from bioterrorism to pandemics. Its budget for 2020 was set to $1.6 billion, but the agency was given further funding for $2 billion as part of an emergency funding package passed in March.

With its latest funding  agreement, announced today, BARDA awarded a $1.2 billion grant to UK-based AstraZeneca, not just to speed up the research and development of a vaccine, but to reserve 400 million doses of it for the US.

The drug maker is entering a third phase of testing, and hopes to be able to have the first doses of vaccine in October, with wider availability in 2021. However, there is no assurance the vaccine will actually be effective, safe, and get approval from regulatory agencies for use on the population. While early results are promising, there is no certainty the vaccine will work, or that it might become available before those from other companies, too.

This isn’t the first time the administration has tried to secure doses of a potential vaccine for Americans. Earlier in the pandemic, Trump had tried to buy CureVac, a German company working on a vaccine, with the aim of ensuring vaccines be available exclusively for the US.

More recently, the US made a $30 million investment in the vaccine research of French pharmaceutical company Sanofi, with the understanding that if a vaccine came out of the research, its first doses would go to the US. Unlike the AstraZeneca deal, however, the agreement did not name a specific number of doses to be made available to the US.

Altogether, BARDA has invested in four coronavirus vaccines under development. By far the largest investment is in AstraZeneca, followed by over $456 million invested in US-based Johnson & Johnson‘s Janssen Research & Development, then by about $430 million given to Moderna, also in the US. The investment to Sanofi is the smallest in BARDA’s vaccine portfolio so far.

Out of the Covid-19 vaccine development programs funded by BARDA, only Johnson & Johnson’s has announced an intention to sell the eventual vaccine at cost, at least initially.