AstraZeneca prepares future plans for emerging diseases
In a recent interview with The Nation, John Perez, Senior Vice President, Head of Late Development, Vaccines & Immune Therapies at AstraZeneca, discussed the company’s development of COVID-19 vaccine that significantly reduces the disease severity and mortality rate, as well as plans that AstraZeneca has prepared for emerging diseases in the future.
Q. Do we currently have enough data to foresee what’s next for COVID-19 and the vaccination trend?
A. The pandemic is still not over and there is still a lot of work for us to do. I believe COVID-19 will become endemic, which means it won’t end but will likely become a recurrent seasonal virus which will require vaccinations, or boosters, to main critical immunity across populations.
We need to protect the most vulnerable people in society and to reduce any further impact on healthcare infrastructures and economies, and that means booster vaccinations will be at the centre of future strategies as countries determine how to live with the virus and limit its effect.
Having a booster maintains your immunity to COVID-19 and much like the flu vaccine, it’s likely COVID-19 vaccines will become annual for most people and every 6-months for the more vulnerable groups of society.
And even as much of the world learns to live with COVID-19, there continues to be a significant need to protect vulnerable and high-risk populations like the immunocompromised, who do not respond adequately to vaccination. That is where solutions like long-acting antibodies (LAAB) will come in.
Q. As we are entering the endemic phase, any plans for future vaccine research and development globally?
A. Last year, we established the Vaccines & Immune Therapies Unit at AstraZeneca as COVID-19 has changed the landscape for vaccines and immune therapies, making this an interesting area of focus even as the world transitions to an endemic phase. We have a portfolio of vaccines and monoclonal antibodies which we will announce at the appropriate time.
We believe we can make a difference with our strong capabilities in this area. We have 20 years of expertise with monoclonal antibodies in respiratory infectious diseases, including passive immunization and prophylaxis use, as well as the vaccine capabilities we demonstrated through COVID-19 – building our customer base and scaling manufacturing rapidly.
Q. It seems AstraZeneca might keep us waiting for the next gen vaccine whilst continue support the expansion of booster coverage using already available vaccines. What’s the (medical) reason behind this move?
A. Countries should prioritise boosting their populations with COVID-19 vaccines currently available to them, to minimise any delay in giving people the protection they need. That’s because the risk of developing serious outcomes, such as hospitalisation and death, becomes higher if vaccination programs are delayed while awaiting variant-specific vaccines.
Importantly, numerous global real-world studies have shown that currently available vaccines provide consistent, high levels of protection against severe disease across different COVID-19 variants, including Omicron.
Real world data also demonstrates that booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccines already used, including AstraZeneca’s vaccine, may remain the most effective way to boost protection against severe outcomes until the effectiveness of variant vaccines has been established.
Q. For people who are still uncertain to get LAAB, can you provide LAAB efficiency towards Omicron and subvariants?
A. AstraZeneca's LAAB is authorised for pre-exposure prophylaxis (prevention) of COVID-19 in many countries around the world and for treatment in Japan and Europe. In Thailand, LAAB was granted conditional marketing authorisation for prevention of COVID-19, in a broad population of adults and adolescents aged 12 years and older.
Real world effectiveness studies with immunocompromised patients have shown a consistent benefit against symptomatic and severe disease caused by Omicron variants.
The LAAB has been shown to retain in vitro neutralisation activity against 29 SARS-CoV-2 variants to date, including BA.5, the current globally dominant variant. A growing body of real-world evidence has demonstrated significantly lower rates of symptomatic COVID-19 and/or hospitalization and death for patients receiving LAAB compared to control arms.
Q. As many countries have started procuring LAAB for treatment of COVID-19, could you share reasons for adapting LAAB instead of other medicines?
A. Despite progress in vaccination efforts, there continues to be a significant need for tolerable and effective therapies that can be used to treat the disease early and help prevent poor outcomes in high-risk patients such as the immunocompromised, older adults and those with co-morbidities.
AstraZeneca's LAAB has already made a big impact preventing infection in vulnerable populations, such as the immunocompromised, and now has the potential to play an important role in COVID-19 treatment.
According to results of the TACKLE Phase III treatment trial, LAAB provided clinically and statistically significant protection against progression to severe COVID-19 or death from any cause compared to placebo, in patients at high risk of progression to severe disease, and with earlier treatment leading to improved efficacy.
The best way to treat COVID-19 is to prevent infection in the first place. However, for high-risk patients who have not achieved protection, where authorised, the LAAB is now a new option that can both treat the infection and provide continued, long-term protection. Also, after treatment with LAAB, high risk patients remain vulnerable to reinfection so the LAAB will provide prophylaxis in addition to short term treatment.
Q. Since the Covid-19 pandemic has catalyzed public awareness of vaccine technologies (i.e., Viral vector vaccines, mRNA vaccines, Inactivated vaccines etc.), do you think this knowledge will transform or affect the public attitude toward vaccines and other medical treatments, as a whole?
A. This is an incredibly exciting time for the healthcare sector as innovation and technology advances at a rapid pace to bring life-saving diagnostics, treatment and medicines to people who need it the most.
We have a real opportunity now to build on the global collaboration we witnessed during the pandemic to future-proof our health systems and bridge the medical divide.
In terms of transforming public attitude, for now we hope people ensure they stay protected against COVID-19 with booster vaccinations as that remains the most effective way of avoiding the most serious outcomes from the virus.
Q. What will the healthcare industry look like in the post-pandemic world?
A. If there is one thing COVID-19 has taught us, it is the power of partnership when it comes to saving lives and delivering equitable healthcare and this is something we will see much more of in the industry.
One strong example of this is the Partnership for Health System Sustainability and Resilience, or PHSSR, which is now active in more than 20 countries and allows us to work with local stakeholders to build knowledge and improve the sustainability and resilience of healthcare systems.
Our goal is for AstraZeneca to be a leader in sustainability and for others to join us in our commitment to having zero carbon emissions from operations in the short-term and in the longer term, working towards the goal of ensuring our entire value chain is carbon negative.
The developments in healthcare are astonishing – from the creation of precision medicines to the use of AI to help us design smarter trials and match patients with the right clinical trials through to online access to hospitals and doctors, allowing us to reach a greater population and reduce existing pressure on services.