‘AstraZeneca cannot play fast and loose with the world’s trust’

Pharma giant again runs into trouble on Covid vaccine data release

An "unforced error" was the somewhat charitable comment by Dr Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to US president Joe Biden on "misleading" data issued by pharma giant AstraZeneca on the outcome of US trials of its Covid-19 vaccine.

Fiasco was the word more commonly being used by industry insiders and analysts to describe the latest misstep by a company that has repeatedly seeded success in the vaccine developed by a team at Oxford University with mistrust and confusion.

AstraZeneca’s announcement that US trial data showed its vaccine was 79 per cent effective within hours drew what was described as an “unprecedented” public rebuke following concerns raised by the body that oversees US drug trials and data.

The company is expected to quickly publish updated figures showing the vaccine boasts efficacy of between 69 and 74 per cent – still highly creditable and comparable to Johnson & Johnson’s well-received jab, which is 72 per cent effective. Why gild the lily, knowing the inevitable scaling down of efficacy would be more damaging than simply publishing the more accurate lower number from the outset?

Cherry-picking data

In the US, the company was accused of cherry-picking data. “Decisions like this are what erode public trust in the scientific process,” the letter of rebuke reportedly stated.

AstraZeneca has had issues with trial data on this vaccine before. An initial efficacy reading of 90 per cent on a half-dose format was only later disclosed to be the result of an error and not part of the original agreed trial protocol.

If transparency was seen as lacking there, there was the fury at US regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, over the company’s lack of candour at meetings with it over a decision to halt trials over unexplained patient illness back in September.

And all that came before its ongoing and bruising battle with the European Union over supply and what are widely seen as – at best – duplicitous contracts.

Even its most fervent Union Jack-waving supporters must wonder just how the company has taken a very successful breakthrough product and turned it into something that, in Dr Fauci’s words “could further fuel hesitancy surrounding the jab”.

The New Yorker put it bluntly this week: "AstraZeneca cannot play fast and loose with the world's trust."