Just eight days after AstraZeneca (AZN) announced the expansion of clinical trials of its AZD1222 vaccine against coronavirus into randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled Phase 3 in the U.S., disaster struck. Medical journal Stat reported (and this report was later confirmed by AstraZeneca itself) "a suspected serious adverse reaction in a participant in the United Kingdom" Phase III trial conducted by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford.
AstraZeneca gave no further details on the adverse reaction in question. Indeed, in reporting on the news, J.P. Morgan analyst Cory Kasimov characterized AstraZeneca's brief comments on Stat's article as containing "zero details" on precisely what happened, and how serious it might be. What we do know is that whatever exactly happened, it "triggered a pause" in the UK trial, which pause was voluntary on AstraZeneca's part, and designed to give time "to allow review of safety data by an independent committee."
It is unknown whether the adverse reaction in question was definitely related to the vaccine as "illnesses will happen by chance... in large trials," explained the company. But because AstraZeneca is committed to the safety of the patients taking part in its trials, it is pausing these trials for an unstated amount of time, out of an abundance of caution.
Kasimov cautioned investors not to overreact or "over-interpret the impact of this news," emphasizing that, so far as we know, only one single patient in the UK appears to have become ill, and predicting that AstraZeneca's hiccup should have "extremely limited" impact on other vaccine trials. With nearly 200 various vaccine candidates in development around the globe -- including several in very advanced stages of development and testing -- chances remain good that sooner or later one of them is going to be approved as safe and effective.
Not everyone shares Kasimov's optimistic view, however. Indeed, Stat's article seems to contradict Kasimov's take on it, noting that AstraZeneca's pause is already "having an impact on other AstraZeneca vaccine trials underway -- as well as on the clinical trials being conducted by other vaccine manufacturers," says Stat, as researchers in other trials of other vaccines comb through their data "for similar cases of adverse reactions."
And even Kasimov seems to contradict himself later in his note, musing that the real danger from AstraZeneca's announcement might not be that it knocks AstraZeneca out of the race to be "first" in developing a vaccine against COVID-19. As Kasimov argues, any first-mover advantage will be of secondary importance if a later-approved vaccine proves to have a better clinical profile -- causing fewer side effects for example, or giving rise to more robust antibody production, or ideally, both.
Rather, Kasimov worries that the real import of this suspension of testing is that news of the adverse event might frighten potential patients away from taking not just AstraZeneca's AZD1222, but other vaccines as well, once they're ready. That could delay the discovery -- and distribution -- of effective vaccines that are needed to stop the spread of coronavirus and get the global economy back on track.
Overall, AstraZeneca stands as a 'Strong Buy' name among Wall Street analysts. In the last three months, the drug maker has won four bullish recommendations. With a return potential of close to 50%, the stock's consensus price target lands at $81.17. (See AZN stock analysis on TipRanks)
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