The Long and Complex Journey of AstraZeneca’s 250 Million “Latin American Vaccines” | International

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

The announcement came at a critical time. It was a confined world and without approved vaccines, even less administered. The pandemic had unleashed a new geopolitical race between the powers and the rest seemed condemned to wait in the distribution of the first doses to combat covid-19. All that changed in 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 AstraZeneca drug, one of the most advanced prototypes available at the time. The pact, an unprecedented collaboration that also included the foundation of the magnate Carlos Slim and the Liomont and mAbxience laboratories, would not only benefit both countries, but would also enhance their distribution throughout Latin America. In fifteen months, however, only about 70 million doses have been completed, less than half the promised minimum.

“It is great 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 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 an equitable access route 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 that is going to help us a lot to maintain hope,” declared the Mexican president. “In 2021 we expect to do 250 million doses,” said Sergio Valentinotti, director of Life Sciences at Liomont, in a press conference two weeks after the presentation of the agreement.

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Expectations were high from the start. “This agreement allows Latin America and Argentina, in particular, to access the vaccine between 6 and 12 months before,” said Fernández. AstraZeneca was thought of as the mainstay of the Mexican strategy against covid, by closing 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 authorize the application of the drug. The Astra prototype, however, was not the first to arrive in both countries. Mexico received the first Latin American shipment from Pfizer on December 23 and Russia’s Sputnik V was the first to arrive in Argentina last Christmas Eve.

It was planned “to have the vaccine from the first quarter of next year [2021]”, According to López Obrador said. But that prognosis was not fulfilled. The Argentine laboratory did its part from the beginning and 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 the certification processes of the health authorities that caused millions of vaccines to be stored in warehouses at the height of the contagion peak in the country.

Two workers from the mAbxience laboratory in Argentina, last year.
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 had to be done, but it has run into a planetary problem that Europe also suffers: there is a lot of demand for supplies and little supply,” said Hugo Sigman, the head of Argentina, last February. from mAbXience. Tensions crossed borders. “We have a big problem called AstraZeneca,” lamented the then Argentine Foreign Minister Felipe Solá at the end of April. In Argentina, the issue was gradually becoming a pressure cooker against the Fernández government, for favoring the pact of the “Latin American vaccine” instead of seeking solutions with US pharmaceutical companies. The authorities of the South American country then met with representatives of the pharmaceutical company to demand explanations, who in the end admitted the delays.

“Guaranteeing supplies was the first major obstacle we overcame,” Valentinotti says in an interview. The Liomont manager comments that, regardless of what could be interpreted in the press, relations with Argentine partners have always been good. The main problem was the supplies that came from the United States, shielded by protectionist laws and national security, a setback that had to be overcome with government efforts. “Producers in the United States such as Pfizer, Janssen or Moderna were the ones that monopolized all this,” recalls Valentinotti, although he says that the problems in the production chain “are completely overcome.”

“There was a lot of pressure at some point because with the pandemic we all wanted a vaccine,” admits Valentinotti. The Liomont laboratory explains that there was “a lag” of a couple of months in the anticipated times due to the technology transfer, the reconversion of the plant and the learning curve. “The original plan was to be able to reach 150 [millones] in a year or during the first quarter of the following year ”, he says about the adjustment of delivery forecasts. The production rate is 18 million doses per month. “If that we had achieved from the beginning, the project would have already concluded,” he concedes, although the forecast is that the goal 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 Liomont's laboratory on February 22.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard (right) and Argentine President Alberto Fernández greet each other during a visit to Liomont’s laboratory on February 22.Esteban Collazo (EFE)

“It has been a very complex process for everyone, but the bottom line is positive because we are going to receive the doses that we were committed to,” says Martha Delgado, the Mexican undersecretary in charge of seeking access to vaccines with pharmaceutical companies. Delgado maintains that the government had nothing to do with the delays, that no official set a deadline to reach the production goal and that the final responsibility rests with the private partners of the agreement.

“In reality, as far as I remember, the 150 million were not limited to a particular year and that year has not ended yet since the production of vaccines began,” says the undersecretary and argues that it is not possible to be so blunt about the deadlines. because it depends on when you start counting. “What interests us in Mexico in the first place is to strengthen the manufacture of vaccines in the country and we achieved that, and secondly to have the ability to ally and complement each other with the manufactures of other countries”, says Delgado, “that of AstraZeneca was the first exercise of its kind ”.

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

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

Sources from the Ministry of Health of Argentina, meanwhile, report that they received 20.5 million of the 22.4 million doses committed by AstraZeneca, but they cannot specify if all came from Liomont. “We are talking about everything AstraZeneca, which includes the doses from the Liomont laboratory packed in Mexico and those from Amlyn Ohio, packed 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 that is presented and approved before ANMAT ”, the state office that approves the public use of drugs, says the same source from the Argentine ministry.

The distribution of the more than 70 million doses that have been manufactured so far is hidden by the confidentiality clauses of the contracts between Astra and the governments of each country. These are data that the Mexican authorities and Liomont say they are unaware of. “They are contracts between private parties, they are not doses packaged by the Government of Mexico,” adds Delgado. AstraZeneca, the only partner with this information, declined an interview request for this report, as did the Carlos Slim Foundation.

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

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

Argentina, meanwhile, has been able to advance in the manufacture of Sputnik V through 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, from local capitals, also obtained financing for 85 million dollars, an unimaginable figure within the dark Argentine economic panorama, for the construction of a new plant with the capacity to manufacture up to 500 million doses per year.

“The great news for us is that we can manufacture the vaccine for the country and Latin America here, in Mexico,” says Valentinotti. The participants of the agreement agree that the trip has been complex, but that the obstacles have been unblocked and open the door for the collaboration to continue. “We do not think about when the agreement is going to end,” says the Liomont executive, “our goal is to continue manufacturing until necessary.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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