By Peter Loftus and Drew Hinshaw 

Pharmaceutical companies are bracing for export bans on future coronavirus vaccines and spreading production across different continents, on early signs of a high-stakes geopolitical scramble to secure supplies for a scientific breakthrough that could confer enormous economic and political power.

The resulting picture is what public health experts call "vaccine nationalism," as the international pursuit for a desperately needed shot shifts into a contest of which world power can immunize its population first. A coronavirus vaccine would be a monumental prize for the first country able to manufacture it at scale, a civilizational triumph comparable to the moon landing. It would allow the winner to revive its economy months ahead of others and then select which allies get shipments next, centering the global recovery on its medical output.

Governments in Europe and Asia have, at times, sent conflicting messages on how aggressively they will reserve any vaccine produced on their soil. But most of the leading pharmaceutical companies developing front-running candidates anticipate that when a vaccine does prove effective, countries will block exports, just as many did with surgical masks or experimental drugs. Rather than concentrate production that could be trapped inside borders, drugmakers such as Johnson & Johnson and Moderna Inc. are preparing factories on different continents to produce in parallel.

"Everybody's protecting their own," said Chief Executive John Chiminski of the New Jersey-based multinational pharmaceutical Catalent Inc. His company provides some of the world's limited capacity for a vaccine production step called sterile vial filling, and is preparing its factories in Indiana, Wis., and Italy to produce multiple potential vaccines. "All of a sudden, these are coveted assets."

The World Health Organization has asked for any future vaccine to be swiftly exported first to hospital workers around the world, then to all people in need, everywhere. "There should not be a divide between the haves and the have-nots," Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters last month. Some drugmakers say, left to them, they would prefer to see hospital workers immunized first.

"Unless we immunize essentially the whole world, none of us will be safe, " Merck & Co. Inc. Chief Executive Ken Frazier said in an interview. His company announced two new vaccines in development Tuesday.

But there is no precedent for such a swift and global immunization, and fundamental supplies run short, from medical glass to ultracold freezers. Several candidates use novel technology understood by only a small number of specialists.

European Union leaders, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have helped raise $8 billion to overcome those hurdles. Earlier this month, the European Commission hosted a global videoconference, in which 43 heads of state and government dialed in to work out the thorny details of how a vaccine might be manufactured and supplied to billions of people in poor countries.

Neither the U.S., India, nor Russia joined the event. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was slated to speak, until the schedule changed a few hours beforehand. The Chinese ambassador who replaced him offered few details in a short speech accusing Western nations of playing a "blame game" around the coronavirus pandemic.

"When a country gets a vaccine it's going to be very interesting to see what happens," said David Heymann, a distinguished fellow in London's Chatham House Global Health program, and a former WHO assistant director-general. "Most countries are going to be politically obliged to make sure it goes to their own people if it's being produced and manufactured in their country."

More than 100 different vaccines are in development, with at least 10 currently being tested on humans. Five of those are in China, whose President Xi Jinping has said any vaccine his country designs will become a "global public good." At the same time, Wang Hui, the party secretary of Sinopharm Group Co. Ltd., whose subsidiaries are producing three of China's candidates, suggested to state-run China Central Television that the firm may give first rights to Chinese nationals, including medical staff and those working or studying abroad.

British and American funding for local drugmakers has come with similar stipulations. In India -- one of the world's largest vaccine makers -- lobbyists with the local pharmaceutical industry expect the government to curb exports so that Indians can access any doses first, as authorities did with the experimental drug hydroxychloroquine.

On Monday, Maryland-based Novavax Inc. said it had begun clinical trials of its own vaccine, the newest such candidate to reach that stage. The company is hoping to manufacture it in multiple markets -- on as many continents as possible, its chief executive, Staley Erck, said in an interview. If all goes well, the company could make up to 100 million doses by the end of the year.

"The question is, where does the first 100 million doses go?" he said. The company is considering the possibility that President Trump will invoke the Defense Production Act to reserve doses produced in the U.S. for Americans, and is looking at how to increase manufacturing outside the U.S. "The potential problem is that borders close," Mr. Erck said.

In the U.S., the federal government has provided more than $2 billion to finance vaccine manufacturing by four drugmakers, all of which remain months away, at best, from bringing a product to market: Johnson & Johnson, Moderna Inc., AstraZeneca PLC and Sanofi SA. Most of those have committed, either per the terms of their funding, or separately, to manufacturing within the U.S. Though some, such as Johnson & Johnson, are also simultaneously pursuing production in Europe.

"We had to get in line first," said Rick Bright, the former director of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, testifying before congress last week, explaining why the U.S. prefunded companies that would manufacture their still-unproven vaccines within its borders. "That's what we did."

Barda is providing up to $483 million to Moderna to fund development and preparations for mass production of its vaccine. Moderna's chief executive, Stéphane Bancel, said in an interview that the contract includes no specific requirement on supplies for the U.S.

But Moderna is using some of the Barda funding to establish manufacturing operations at a plant in New Hampshire operated by Lonza Ltd., a Swiss contract manufacturer that Moderna has joined with to expand vaccine production. The company will also separately produce a vaccine at a plant in Switzerland.

Mr. Bancel said he has heard from government leaders around the world who are "worried about allocation of the product."

"There will be people who will be really upset if they don't get the vaccine," Mr. Bancel said. "We'll have to thread that needle thoughtfully and carefully,"

Beyond the U.S., the British government has given at least $79 million toward a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. British citizens would be first in line to get access to that vaccine, with 30 million doses expected as soon as September.

Last week, the Trump administration said it would provide up to $1.2 billion in grants to AstraZeneca to manufacture some 300 million doses for the U.S.

"Every vaccine manufacturer will feel obligations to the country where it's based," said Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, an Oslo-based nonprofit group that finances coronavirus vaccine projects, including Novavax's candidate, to help immunize health-care workers globally. It isn't just the U.S. that might steer vaccine production to its own citizens, he said: "This is a global phenomenon."

--Jared Hopkins contributed to this article.

Write to Peter Loftus at peter.loftus@wsj.com and

Drew Hinshaw at drew.hinshaw@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 27, 2020 07:25 ET (11:25 GMT)

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