AstraZeneca shares rise as University of Oxford vaccine poised for UK approval

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Shares in AstraZeneca PLC (LON:AZN) and the wider market jumped on news that the coronavirus vaccine being jointly developed with the University of Oxford could be approved for use in the UK as soon as this week.

The FTSE 100 drug developer also revealed on Tuesday that its Lynparza treatment had been approved in Japan for the treatment of advanced ovarian, prostate and pancreatic cancers.

Government officials confirmed to media over the weekend that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is poised to grant emergency use approval for the vaccine in the coming days.

“The medicines regulator is reviewing the final data from the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca phase three clinical trials to determine whether the vaccine meets their strict standards of quality, safety and effectiveness,” a spokesperson for the Department of Health said.

“We must now give the MHRA the time to carry out its important work and we must wait for its advice.”

Shares in AstraZeneca were up 4% at 7,507.97, while the FTSE 100 was up over 2% at 6,640 not long after midday on Tuesday, also buoyed by the Brexit trade deal agreed just before the festive break.

Virus numbers rising

This came a day after Britain reported 41,385 new cases of COVID-19, a new daily record, as infection rates were accelerated by a new variant of the coronavirus and a catch-up in the reporting of cases after the Christmas weekend.

Numbers of hospitalisations also reached a new peak, with 20,426 patients being treated in hospitals on Monday morning, compared with the previous high of 18,974 patients in mid April.

The government also said 357 more people had died within 28 days of a positive test, bringing the official UK death total to 71,109. Adding other data on deaths in recent days means there have now been more than 87,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK, the Office for National Statistics said.

News that the Oxford vaccine could soon be administered came as a great relief, especially with a study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine indicating that 2mln people a week would need to be vaccinated to avoid a third wave of the coronavirus outbreak.

The UK government, which approved a vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine in the first week of December, has ordered 100mln doses of the Oxford vaccine, with around 40mln expected to be available by the end of March.

Distribution of the Oxford vaccine could begin as early as 4 January, the Sunday Telegraph reported, with the government hoping that more than 2mln people could have their first dose within the first two weeks.

That the vaccine is likely to be approved and will be available in large quantities and at room temperature “will be a game-changer” for the country and economy, said analysts at Oanda.

With large parts of the UK under deep lockdown and others poised to go under tighter restrictions, a deeper economic recession is expected for the first half of 2021.

But a successful vaccination programme, combined with the lifting of some of the uncertainty around Brexit, “could unleash animal spirits in the form of corporate investment and increased private consumption”, said analysts at AJ Bell.

“Buoyed by news of mass inoculation on the UK and other countries, as well as ongoing fiscal and monetary support for economies from governments and central banks, markets seem to be leaning toward this scenario right now, with some investors openly debating the return of inflation.”

Vaccine effectiveness

Two full doses of the Oxford vaccine given at least a month apart led to the vaccine having an efficacy of 62%, although this efficacy rate improved to 90% in one trial where people were given half a dose followed by a whole dose at least a month later.

This compares to 95% efficiency for the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, or 94.5% for Moderna’s vaccine.

But Pascal Soriot, chief executive of AstraZeneca, told the Sunday Times: “We think we have figured out the winning formula and how to get efficacy that, after two doses, is up there with everybody else.”

He said the vaccine team will publish a full explanation at some point.

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