The long and complex journey of AstraZeneca’s 250 million “Latin American vaccines” | International

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Liomont workers at the Mexican plant that produces the Astra Zeneca vaccine last February.GOVERNMENT OF MEXICO

The announcement came at a critical time. It was a confined world without licensed vaccines, let alone administered. The pandemic had triggered a new geopolitical race between the powers and the rest seemed doomed to wait in the distribution of the first doses to fight against covid-19. That all changed during the second week of August 2020. The governments of Mexico and Argentina presented an agreement to jointly produce between 150 and 250 million doses of the drug AstraZeneca, one of the most advanced prototypes available at the time. The pact, an unprecedented collaboration that also included the founding of tycoon Carlos Slim and the Liomont and mAbxience laboratories, would not only benefit both countries, but would also improve their dissemination throughout Latin America. In fifteen months, however, only around 70 million doses were delivered, less than half of the minimum promised.

“It is excellent news that Mexico and Argentina are the benchmarks in the production of this vaccine and that it is a solution for the continent”, said Alberto Fernández, the Argentine president, on August 12 of the last year. “It is a great relief for the future, but it is not a solution for the present,” said the president, in a message full of enthusiasm for the possibility of opening a fair path of access to the vaccine in one of the most unequal regions. of the world. world, thanks to a non-profit pact.

The official announcement came a day later with Andrés Manuel López Obrador, representatives of the pharmaceutical company and the Secretaries of Health and Foreign Relations. “It is really something exceptional which will help us a lot to keep hope”, declared the Mexican president. “In 2021, we plan to make 250 million doses,” Sergio Valentinotti, director of life sciences at Liomont, said at a press conference two weeks after the presentation of the agreement.

Expectations were high from the start. “This agreement allows Latin America and Argentina, in particular, to access the vaccine between 6 and 12 months prior,” Fernández said. AstraZeneca has been seen as the backbone of Mexico’s covid strategy, signing a contract for 77.4 million doses, more than with any other pharmaceutical company. Argentina, for its part, was the second country in the world to allow the application of the drug. The Astra prototype, however, was not the first to arrive in the two countries. Mexico received Pfizer’s first Latin American shipment on December 23, and Russian Sputnik V was the first to arrive in Argentina on Christmas Eve last.

It was planned “to have the vaccine from the first quarter of next year [2021]”, According to López Obrador said. But this prognosis did not come true. The Argentine lab has done its part from the start and has sent the equivalent of six million doses in bulk since January. The Mexican counterpart, however, faced a series of delays due to a global supply crisis and certification processes by health authorities that resulted in millions of vaccines being stored in warehouses during the height of the peak. contagion in the country.

Two workers from the mAbxience laboratory in Argentina last year.AGUSTIN MARCARIAN (Reuters)

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“Liomont has excellent laboratories and has done everything that needed to be done, but it ran into a planetary problem from which Europe also suffers: there is a lot of demand for supply and little supply” Argentina boss Hugo Sigman said last February. by mAbXience. Tensions have crossed borders. “We have a big problem called AstraZeneca,” lamented then Argentinian Foreign Minister Felipe Solá at the end of April. In Argentina, the case was gradually becoming a pressure cooker against the Fernández government, for having promoted the “Latin American vaccine” pact instead of seeking solutions with American pharmaceutical companies. The authorities of the South American country then met with representatives of the pharmaceutical company to demand explanations, which finally recognized the delays.

“Securing supplies was the first major hurdle we overcame,” Valentinotti said in an interview. Liomont’s manager comments that regardless of what might be interpreted in the press, relations with the Argentinian partners have always been good. The main problem was the supply from the United States, protected by protectionist laws and national security, a setback that had to be overcome through government efforts. “Producers in the United States like Pfizer, Janssen or Moderna were the ones who monopolized it all,” Valentinotti recalls, although he says that the problems in the production line “have been completely overcome”.

“There was a lot of pressure at one point because with the pandemic we all wanted a vaccine,” admits Valentinotti. The Liomont laboratory explains that there has been a “lag” of a few months in the planned timeframe due to the transfer of technology, the reconversion of the plant and the learning curve. “The initial plan was to be able to reach 150 [millones] in a year or during the first quarter of the following year ”, he specifies about the adjustment of the delivery forecasts. The production rate is 18 million doses per month. “If this had been achieved from the start, the project would have already been completed,” he concedes, although the forecast is that the target will be reached by February or March.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard (right) and Argentine President Alberto Fernández greet each other during a visit to the Liomont laboratory on February 22.Esteban Collazo (EFE)

“It has been a very complex process for everyone, but the result is positive because we are going to receive the doses to which we are committed,” said Martha Delgado, the Mexican undersecretary in charge of seeking access to vaccines from pharmaceutical companies. Delgado argues that the government has nothing to do with the delays, that no official has set a deadline to meet the production target, and that the final responsibility rests with the private partners in the deal.

“In reality, as far as I can remember, the 150 million was not limited to a particular year and that year is not yet over since the start of vaccine production,” explains the undersecretary and argues that ‘it is not possible to be so blunt about the deadlines. because it depends on when you start to count. “What interests us in Mexico first is to strengthen vaccine manufacturing in the country and we have achieved that, and second to have the ability to ally and complement with other manufacturers. country “, explains Delgado,” that AstraZeneca was the first exercise of its kind. “

Despite the fact that governments were the protagonists of the announcement, their role was focused on providing “venture capital” with pre-purchase agreements, the partial payment of 77.4 million doses from Mexico. and 22.4 million doses from Argentina. . There was also a collaboration between the regulators of the two countries to streamline production and monitor the process.

The first batch, shared by the two countries, was finally released in the last week of May. “The production is already in place, after a long, complex and hazardous process,” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said during the announcement. Until the second week of November, Mexico had received 35.6 million doses produced on its territory from Liomont, reports the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Currently, the country has a similar number of doses of AstraZeneca finished in the local factory as those imported from other countries.

Sources from Argentina’s Ministry of Health, meanwhile, report having received 20.5 million of the 22.4 million doses initiated by AstraZeneca, but they cannot say whether all came from Liomont. “We are talking about everything AstraZeneca, which includes the doses from the Liomont laboratory packaged in Mexico and those from Amlyn Ohio, packaged in the United States. We do not have a contract with Mexico, the contract is with AstraZeneca, which can deliver to us from any laboratory presented and approved before the ANMAT ”, the state office that approves public use of drugs, indicates the same Argentinian ministry source.

The distribution of the more than 70 million doses manufactured to date is masked by confidentiality clauses in contracts between Astra and the governments of each country. This is data that the Mexican authorities and Liomont say they ignore. “These are contracts between private parties, they are not doses conditioned by the Mexican government,” adds Delgado. AstraZeneca, the only partner with this information, declined an interview request for this report, as did the Carlos Slim Foundation.

Generally speaking, half stayed in Mexico and the rest left for Latin America. “We know that there has been [embarques] in Argentina, Colombia, Peru, various Central American countries and there have also been donations from the Mexican government, ”said Valentinotti. These donations total nearly 1.3 million doses to seven countries in the region: Paraguay, Belize, Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Jamaica. These donations came from the Liomont factory, according to the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

At this point, the countries that have promoted the agreement, at least, no longer have problems with vaccine availability, in part due to increasing their local production capacities and diversifying their portfolio. options. On the uncertain ground of boosters, the third doses and the reinforcements that will be needed in the coming months, Delgado anticipates that the Mexican government is in negotiations to produce the drug Pfizer, although they are nascent. Besides Astra, Mexico has a similar deal with China to package the CanSino vaccine on its territory and a Mexican laboratory has announced that it will do the same with Sputnik V, although this process has not advanced.

Argentina, meanwhile, was able to progress in the manufacture of Sputnik V thanks to Laboratorios Richmond. It already has five million doses delivered for internal consumption, thanks to a technology transfer agreement with the creators of the Russian vaccine. Richmond, of the local capitals, has also secured funding of $ 85 million, a figure unimaginable in Argentina’s grim economic landscape, for the construction of a new plant with a manufacturing capacity of up to 500 million doses per year. .

“The good news for us is that we can make the vaccine for the country and Latin America here in Mexico,” says Valentinotti. Participants in the agreement agree that the journey has been complex, but the obstacles have been unblocked and open the door to continued collaboration. “We are not thinking of the end of the agreement”, explains the leader of Liomont, “our aim is to continue manufacturing until it is necessary.”

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