The Edsel was a good car. It was also one of the greatest business failures in history.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine is on the fast-track to becoming the Edsel of the pandemic age.
Seemingly not a day goes by when there isn’t another damning report about the product, each one worse than the last.
While the AstraZeneca vaccine is, by all appearances (and according to regulators around the world) both efficacious and safe, public confidence is crumbling.
The Edsel, manufactured by Ford, was an epic failure for many reasons, but there were two principal ones: arrogance and poor communication.
AstraZeneca seems to have embraced both, in spades. Like the Edsel, the wounds are all self-inflicted.
We have high expectations for vaccines. They are the golden ticket out of the pandemic. AstraZeneca, in particular, has been promised to the developing world at low cost.
AstraZeneca got off to a rocky start. Its clinical trial, despite being one of the most anticipated in history, was beset by technical problems that were amateurish.
First, doses were administered improperly to some study participants. Then the trial was halted for weeks after one person in the trial died, without proper explanations that hiccups such as these are normal.
When the trial results were released, the real debacle began. Efficacy was 62 per cent, much worse than the 95-per-cent efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines that launched earlier. Muddled reporting of results by the company left the impression that the two-shot AstraZeneca vaccine worked better if people received only one shot, and that it didn’t work in people older than 65. (Neither of these things were true but, again, communication was abysmal.)
Then the real-world issues arose. Some countries (including Canada) said the vaccine should not be administered to people older than 65 because of insufficient data, not because it was unsafe. Those orders were reversed quickly, but in the public mind, the vaccine was tainted.
Then there were indications the AstraZeneca vaccine didn’t work against the B1351 variant, which originated in South Africa.
Then the most wounding issue of all: blood clots. Regulators in Europe spotted reports of unusual blood clots, particularly in younger women. A couple of dozen countries halted use of the AstraZeneca vaccine; most resumed its use days later, but leaving the company with another black eye.
Almost all regulators around the world agree on one thing: While there was a theoretical risk of a rare clotting event, the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the risk. They also stress the risk of clotting is much greater from COVID-19 than from the vaccine.
All this is also occurring under a political backdrop. AstraZeneca has given Britain priority access to the vaccine, infuriating the European Union, which has now halted shipments to Britain. European countries are simultaneously bad-mouthing the vaccine and clamouring to get more of it. No wonder the public is confused.
Another juicy political angle is the AstraZeneca vaccine has not be approved in the United States – because the company hasn’t submitted a request. There are millions of doses sitting in AstraZeneca’s U.S. plant, some of which Canada will “borrow.”
Earlier this week, though, it published a press release disclosing a U.S. trial found its vaccine was 79 per cent effective (much better than the 62 per cent in an earlier trial). But no sooner had the ink dried that the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases rebuked the company for publishing outdated, misleading data. Again, the company shot itself in the foot.
The net result of all this, as the Economist so deftly put it, is “the public is spooked.”
It boggles the mind that a giant pharmaceutical company, whose chief executive officer Pascal Soriot was paid US$21.4-million last year, could so monumentally screw up such an important rollout, especially given the fact the vaccine actually works well. This was all so avoidable.
The question now is: What should we do about this Edsel-like vaccine?
Do we continue using it even though the abysmal PR is undermining trust in vaccines over all? Will shipping this product to the developing world make coronavirus vaccination look like a giant Tuskegee experiment? Or do we cut our losses and stop using the cursed AstraZeneca vaccine altogether, which would slow the global vaccination effort considerably and maybe do nothing to quell distrust?
It’s a Catch-22 for the ages.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.