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Why is the AstraZeneca vaccine less expensive than others?

This article was published on
August 10, 2021

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Compared to many of its counterparts, the AstraZeneca vaccine is easier and less expensive to manufacture, store, and transport. It’s been featured prominently in the vaccination strategies of many developing and developed countries for these reasons. 

Compared to many of its counterparts, the AstraZeneca vaccine is easier and less expensive to manufacture, store, and transport. It’s been featured prominently in the vaccination strategies of many developing and developed countries for these reasons. 

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What our experts say

Compared to many of its counterparts, the AstraZeneca vaccine is easier and less expensive to manufacture, store, and transport. It’s been featured prominently in the vaccination strategies of many developing and developed countries for these reasons. 

The vaccine is also a significant part of the COVAX facility of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, which aims to provide the vaccine to many developing countries. COVAX procures vaccines at scale, which further reduces costs to patients and governments looking to buy doses. 

AstraZeneca has pledged to sell the vaccine “at cost” during the pandemic, however the company has not defined specifically what “at cost” means in this context. 

Adenoviruses are largely harmless viruses commonly found in humans and animals. They’re used in some vaccines, including the AstraZeneca shot. These adenoviruses have been studied and used since the 1970s by scientists to develop gene therapies and vaccines for various diseases. The rights to this vaccine were provided to global pharmaceutical manufacturer AstraZeneca, who in turn have licensed its manufacturing to other companies around the world, including the Serum Institute of India. The longstanding nature of this science contributed to the speed with which the vaccine was developed. It also contributed to helping keep supply chain costs for the AstraZeneca vaccine lower, compared to the newer mRNA vaccines. 

Unlike AstraZeneca’s shot, mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna have demanding cold storage requirements, which drive up costs for those vaccines. Complex chemicals, dry ice and other transport expenses are some of the things that add to the costs of mRNA vaccines. Meanwhile, easier-to-find refrigerated trucks can be used for adenovirus vaccines like AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. 

There has also never before been a demand for mRNA vaccines. This may strain supply chains for some ingredients in those vaccines. Adenovirus vaccine supply chains have been around for longer and are well-established, so the strain on ingredients for them is less significant. 

Context and background

The AstraZeneca viral vector vaccine is a much less expensive and more widely available COVID-19 vaccine that has been in use since January 2021 in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. It is currently manufactured in three countries (United Kingdom, India, Netherlands), and sold under different names (Vaxzevria, Covishield). 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, viral vector vaccines were used in the development of the ebola vaccine, and have been studied as a possible option to vaccinate individuals against Zika, HIV, Tuberculosis and others. There are several viral vector vaccines that are currently in use to vaccinate individuals against the SARS-CoV-2 virus including the AstraZeneca, Janssen (J&J), CanSino and others. They use a range of different adenoviruses including those from humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas, and are administered through intramuscular injections, orally, or through the nose. 

The first group to successfully launch a viral vector vaccine for COVID-19 was based at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford. Given their prior experience in developing a vaccine for Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome using their chimpanzee adenovirus platform, they were able to rapidly develop a vaccine that incorporated the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that when expressed in humans (ChAdOx1), triggers an immune response to the virus. The existing research and science that existed around this type of vaccine before it was deployed for use also contributed to its relatively lower cost. 

The vaccine is now widely in use around the world. While it has remained one of the least expensive vaccines, critics have claimed that it would have been even cheaper and more widely accessible if the rights to the vaccine were freely available to any manufacturer as originally intended by the Oxford team. 

Resources

  1. Developments in Viral Vector-Based Vaccines (Vaccines)
  2. Chimpanzee-origin adenovirus vectors as vaccine carriers (Nature Gene Therapy)
  3. A Novel Chimpanzee Adenovirus Vector with Low Human Seroprevalence: Improved Systems for Vector Derivation and Comparative Immunogenicity (PLOS One)
  4. Understanding Viral Vector COVID-19 Vaccines (CDC)
  5. Adenoviral vectors are the new COVID-19 vaccine front-runners. Can they overcome their checkered past? (ACS)
  6. In Race for a Coronavirus Vaccine, an Oxford Group Leaps Ahead (New York Times)
  7. Vaccine deal allows AstraZeneca to take up to 20% on top of costs (Financial Times)
  8. What is COVAX? (COVAX)
  9. What Is Covax and How Will It Deliver Covid-19 Vaccines to Poorer Countries? (Wall Street Journal)
  10. They Pledged to Donate Rights to Their COVID Vaccine, Then Sold Them to Pharma (Kasier Health News)
  11. Covid Vaccine: Race to Patent Treatments Could Hold Back Coronavirus Drug (Bloomberg)

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