Immediately after some hours of Moderna vaccine early results, UK has ordered to secure 5m doses of a breakthrough coronavirus vaccine.
Interim findings from the US biotech firm Moderna – whose trials included high-risk and elderly people – suggested its vaccine was 95% effective. It is more expensive than the Pfizer/BioNTech version announced last week but can potentially be stored and transported more easily.
The two vaccines could be used to immunise more than 1 billion people against coronavirus by the end of next year.
Britain initially chose not to buy the Moderna vaccine amid concerns over unpredictable behaviour by the US president Donald Trump and the lack of a dependable European supply chain, a source told the Guardian.
The UK had also shunned the EU vaccine purchase scheme, arguing in July that the government could source vaccines faster on its own.
Meanwhile, the US secured 100m Moderna doses, with an option to buy 400m more, while the European commission has a “potential purchase agreement” for 80m-160m doses. Japan, Canada, Switzerland, Qatar and Israel also secured shots.
UK ministers remain hopeful that a vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstroZeneca could be available soon – even by Christmas – with results of that trial reported to be imminent.
On Monday the health secretary, Matt Hancock, told a Downing Street briefing that the UK had secured 5m doses of the Moderna vaccine – a smaller number than the 350m total doses secured for other potential vaccines. The deal would see the first jabs delivered in spring 2021 if approved by regulators.
After Moderna’s results were announced at 12pm on Monday, the government faced mounting criticism over a decision – understood to have been led by vaccine taskforce head Kate Bingham and the business secretary, Alok Sharma – not to initially secure the vaccine.
One source close to the negotiations said that in the early weeks of the pandemic during the scramble for vaccines, there were fears over “vaccine nationalism” and Trump’s behaviour when it came to agreeing a deal with a US company, which at the time did not have established supply chains to Europe. Moderna has since launched European supply operations, with manufacturing partners in Switzerland and Spain.
On Monday, an emergency team of officials from the vaccine taskforce, along with the Treasury, Department for Business (BEIS) and the Department of Health, finalised the agreement within four hours, with no advance notice of the firm’s results – clinching a deal less than an hour before Hancock’s 5pm appearance at the daily press conference.
One source said there was concern Hancock would be “mullered” if the UK had not secured doses of the new jab.
Hancock told the press conference that “great advances in medical science are coming to the rescue” from the pandemic. “While there is much uncertainty, we can see the candle of hope and we must do all that we can to nurture its flame,” he said.
Government scientists warned, however, that tougher measures were still needed to get through the pandemic until a vaccine was available – and hinted at a possible new tier 4 of tighter restrictions when lockdown is lifted in England in December.
Dr Susan Hopkins, medical adviser to Public Health England on Covid-19, suggested a fourth tier of tougher measures might need to be added in England.
“We see very little effect from tier 1 and I think when we look at what tiers may be there in the future we will have to think about strengthening them in order to get us through the winter months until the vaccine is available for everyone,” she told the press conference.
Moderna’s interim analysis released on Monday, and based on the first 95 patients with confirmed Covid infections, found the candidate vaccine has an efficacy of 94.5%. It plans to apply to the US regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, and to regulators in the EU and UK for emergency-use authorisation in coming weeks.
A spokesman for Moderna said the company had always been committed to fair access to its vaccine and that Europe supply chains were part of a deal done in May 2020.
“Moderna’s partnership with Lonza [includes] the establishment of manufacturing sites in both the US for the local market, with a dedicated supply chain to supply markets outside of the US from Switzerland,” the spokesman said.
Questions will be raised about how much the UK government has paid for the vaccine, which BEIS would not disclose, citing commercial sensitivity. The European commission is understood to have told the company it wants to reach a deal for a price below $25 (£19) a dose.
The US paid Moderna $15 a dose to secure 100m vaccines in a $1.5bn deal in August. That was on top of $1bn in funding for Moderna’s vaccine, effectively bringing the combined price to $25.
Moderna’s vaccine is more expensive than the other frontrunners. AstraZeneca and Oxford University are aiming to sell their vaccine at about £3 a dose, while vaccines in a trial with Johnson & Johnson and a collaboration between Sanofi and GSK are both expected to cost about £8 a dose. Pfizer is charging the US about £30 for a two-shot course.
Government sources cited questions about the company’s European supply chains and a need to distribute a “limited pot” wisely as reasons for the decision not to initially purchase supplies from Moderna.
The decision had been made to “bet on Pfizer” given it was well-established in Europe and was based on the same platform as Moderna, it was said.
“We knew Moderna was not able to provide until spring 2021 and so therefore when you have a limited pot and two options, you back Pfizer who have a huge European distribution,” the source said. “That is paying off – we now have the chance of a vaccine in December.”
The other concern was how the US would react to other countries buying up a US vaccine. “If the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine came through and suddenly we’re shipping off 75m doses to France, then people will go nuts. We were thinking what Trump would do if that’s an American vaccine, by an American company, subsidised by American government,” a source close to the negotiations said.