Breakingviews - AstraZeneca’s messaging warrants a review, too

A test tube labeled with the vaccine is seen in front of AstraZeneca logo in this illustration taken, September 9, 2020.

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - AstraZeneca’s vaccine home run is in danger of turning into a curveball. The $134 billion drug giant is planning to review its Covid-19 vaccine candidate to clarify how effective it is. While it’s doing so, the UK group should probably do a separate review of how it communicates.

Chief Executive Pascal Soriot said on Monday that AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine could be 90% effective. That was the first data point in a statement released by the company, but referred to a result from a small part of the study accidentally obtained by using the wrong dosage. Meanwhile the University of Oxford, its vaccine partner, released a separate statement that highlighted the average effectiveness of the remedy as 70% from two different dosing regimens. In fact, the most conservative number to use was a figure that appeared further down in both messages: 62%. That was the result obtained from two-thirds of the participants that took part in the trial.

It’s understandable why Soriot favoured the best-case scenario. Vaccine trial results from U.S. peers Pfizer and Moderna showed stratospheric effectiveness of 95%. Yet AstraZeneca’s 62% equivalent remains impressive. It goes beyond the minimum 50% rate required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In the current environment, careful communication is critical. As many as 40% of Americans are unwilling to take a Covid-19 vaccine, according to an October Gallup poll. Although drug giants have vowed not to profit from coronavirus jabs during the pandemic, the speed of the vaccine rollouts itself breeds wariness. Things will get even more awkward if AstraZeneca’s new review finds its vaccine is less useful than assumed.

Investors will be watching, too. AstraZeneca’s shares have fallen nearly 5% since it revealed its results on Monday. Big Pharma valuations are based on the ability to deliver new blockbuster drugs and developing a track record for delivering on your pledges is an integral part of the mix. AstraZeneca should bear that in mind when it gets the results of its latest review back.


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