In Depth

Valneva vaccine: why UK ditched jab with ‘stronger immune response’ than AstraZeneca

Downing Street accused French manufacturer of breaching contract

Shares in the French biotech company Valneva soared yesterday after a trial showed that its Covid-19 vaccine “demonstrated superiority” over the AstraZeneca jab. The results were published less than a month after the UK government terminated a contract to buy 100 million doses from the French firm.

The Valneva vaccine had been set to play a significant part in the UK’s ongoing vaccine rollout. In August last year, Downing Street announced a multimillion-pound investment in Valneva’s manufacturing plant in Livingston, Scotland, with Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng touting it as a possible “vaccine production powerhouse”.

In February, the government increased its order of 60 million jabs, securing an extra 40 million doses of the “promising vaccine candidate”, for 2021 and 2022. But the deal came crashing down last month when Downing Street served notice that the UK was to terminate the agreement.

The government claimed Valneva was in breach of the deal because the jab had not been approved by the UK regulator in time to “form any part of our vaccine rollout in autumn and winter”. The biotech company “strenuously denies” the allegation, and has continued the vaccine’s development, said the BBC.

This week, a phase 3 clinical trial of 4,012 adults found that Valneva’s VLA2001 jab produced more neutralising antibodies in the recipient than AstraZeneca’s vaccine. Participants experienced “far fewer side effects” and displayed a “stronger immune response” than those who had received the AZ jab, said the Financial Times.

The trial’s chief investigator, Professor Adam Finn, described the immune response as “both impressive and extremely encouraging”. The vaccine has been developed with a more “traditional approach” to others being used in Europe and North America at present, he explained, making it the only “whole virus, inactivated, adjuvanted vaccine” being tested in Europe. The results suggest that the jab is “on track to play an important role in overcoming the pandemic”, said Finn. 

Competition for Covid-19 vaccines has “proved politically explosive” on a global front, noted the FT. The EU only last month settled an “acrimonious dispute” with AstraZeneca over delayed supplies, and the French government initially came in for criticism last year when the UK first struck a supply deal with Valneva, said the paper. 

The UK has so far approved four vaccines for use: Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Moderna and Janssen. However, under-40s have been offered an alternative to the AstraZeneca vaccine due to evidence linking it to rare blood clots.

Shares in Valneva fell by 42% when the UK scrapped its deal in September, but they shot up again yesterday by 32% premarket with the publication of the trial results. While the company said it would still work to gain approval from the UK’s medical regulator, the company “may now look to other countries” for future deals, said the BBC. The government has described the Valneva agreement as an “ongoing commercial issue”. 

If approved, the jab could prove beneficial to countries in the developing world as it is “based on traditional vaccine technology”, said The Guardian. This could help to combat low vaccination rates and the expense of investing in new technologies to develop newer mRNA vaccines, like the Moderna and Pfizer jabs. 

The Guardian added that the Valneva vaccine could be useful in “countries where ultra-low-temperature storage is hard to come by” as it can be stored in normal refrigerators. 

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