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Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine research ‘was 97% publicly funded’

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Michael Safi
·4 min read
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Photograph: Hollandse Hoogte/Rex/Shutterstock
Photograph: Hollandse Hoogte/Rex/Shutterstock

At least 97% of the funding for the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine has been identified as coming from taxpayers or charitable trusts, according to the first attempt to reconstruct who paid for the decades of research that led to the lifesaving formulation.

Using two different methods of inquiry, researchers were able to identify the source of hundreds of millions of pounds of research grants from the year 2000 onwards for published work on what would eventually become the novel technology that underpins the jab, as well as funding for the final product.

The overwhelming majority of the money, especially in the early stages of the research, came from UK government departments, British and American scientific institutes, the European commission and charities including the Wellcome Trust.

Less than 2% of the identified funding came from private industry, the researchers said, a finding they said posed a challenge to the views of people such as Boris Johnson, who has said that the record-fast development of Covid-19 vaccines was “because of capitalism, because of greed”.

Watch: UK woman says AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine turned her into 'Alien' monster

Johnson made the remark privately, but the same message has been promoted by the pharmaceutical industry, which has warned against waiving patents for Covid-19 vaccines – and other measures that could widen access – by arguing that ownership rights and the ability to generate profits are a key driver of vaccine innovation.

“Our study shows that quite the opposite is true: public investment and international collaboration gave us the Covid-19 vaccines,” the team of researchers, from the advocacy group Universities Allied for Essential Medicines UK, said in a statement.

The paper is awaiting peer review but a preprint version was published online this week.

It provides a snapshot of the money that went into developing the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and there is no definitive figure. This is partly because scientific progress is not linear – with studies neatly building on earlier studies – but also because of a significant lack of transparency around who pays for both public and private research.

To cast the widest possible net, the researchers first identified every relevant piece of published research since 2002 into the adenovirus vector technology employed by the vaccine, extracting the names of the sources mentioned in their funding declarations. Where possible, they matched the funders to a specific grant of money.

In most cases, they were unable to determine how much funding a particular source gave, but were able to identify more than £228m worth of grants – the largest chunk from overseas governments including the EU, followed by the UK and then charitable foundations.

Separately, the researchers lodged freedom of information (FOI) requests with Oxford University including for details of the grants given since 2000 to Sarah Gilbert and Adrian Hill, the two scientists who led research into the vaccine technology.

The information disclosed showed that until 31 December 2019, the day China announced the detection of a “pneumonia of unknown cause” in the city of Wuhan, most of the funding for relevant research came from overseas governments and the European Union. Industry funding amounted to 2.8% of the money identified by the FOIs.

Once the new coronavirus was identified and started to spread in January 2020, the UK government stepped in with more than £33m of funding for the vaccine, on top of the £5m it had given earlier, making it the largest overall source of money, according to the FOIs.

The research team said neither method provided the full picture, but both made it clear that the overwhelming majority of funding for the vaccine came from governments, universities or charities, rather than from industry.

“We need to stop perpetuating the narrative in which the private sector and profit are the sole drivers of innovation, and recognise that the life-saving ChAdOx vaccine technology was developed with near total governmental and charitable funding,” the researchers said.

Oxford University initially said any vaccine it developed would be open to qualified manufacturers to produce without paying royalties, and priced either at cost or at a small profit. However, by August 2020, reportedly at the urging of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the university entered an exclusive licensing agreement with the British-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca.

AstraZeneca has pledged to sell the vaccine at a not-for-profit rate for the entirety of the pandemic and entered into several licensing agreements with large manufacturers, including the Serum Institute of India, to try to ensure the vaccine is widely produced.

But the company reserves the right to raise the price of the vaccine when it decides the Covid-19 pandemic has ended – which will lead to a potential windfall if regular booster shots are required in the years ahead to maintain immunity against the virus and its variants.

Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?