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Coronavirus

US and China unleash wallets in race for coronavirus vaccine

Capitals prioritize national drives over international cooperation

Countries around the world are investing big in crash programs to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus.   © Reuters

TOKYO/LONDON -- Countries around the world are shoveling huge sums at drug companies to aid development, clinical trials and mass production of COVID-19 vaccines, overshadowing coordinated global efforts.

The U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority has poured $1.2 billion into the hunt since early March, when the pandemic began to gain momentum in America. The office was created in 2006 under the Department of Health and Human Services to help protect the nation from bioterrorism and other threats.

BARDA is investing in not only the vaccines themselves, but also their supply chains, so that they can quickly be distributed to the public once approved. It has jointly committed more than $1 billion with Johnson & Johnson to develop capacity for a billion-plus doses.

Biotechnology company Moderna has announced a BARDA award of up to $483 million for its vaccine candidate. The agency is believed to have committed to buying the product in quantity even before efficacy is established.

The U.S. aims to have hundreds of millions of doses available by January, according to Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and sits on the White House coronavirus task force.

"You don't wait until you get an answer before you start manufacturing," he has said. "You at-risk -- proactively -- start making it, assuming it's going to work."

Other countries are also ramping up support for vaccine development. In China, three companies and research institutes are believed to be receiving government support to fund, plan clinical trials for and produce vaccine candidates. The country has prioritized proving their effectiveness over safety, allowing development to move quickly.

One of the trio, Cansino Biologics, has become the first player in the world to enter second-phase clinical trials, which gauge efficacy. The goal is to commercialize a vaccine by the end of the year -- a feat that could boost China's diplomatic clout.

The U.K. has announced 20 million pounds ($25.1 million) for the University of Oxford to aid its vaccine project. A recently announced partnership by the university and AstraZeneca aims to churn out 100 million doses by year-end and prioritize supply to the U.K.

The European Union has also stepped up, offering 80 million euros ($88.1 million) to a key German vaccine maker in a likely attempt to ensure that the company prioritizes the bloc over the U.S.

But the EU lacks a single agency running point on vaccine development, possibly slowing efforts there.

"Currently, Europe has no BARDA equivalent, meaning that the EU has limited vaccine manufacturing capabilities and countries are independently responsible for stockpiling medical supplies and medications," wrote Paul Hudson, CEO of France's Sanofi, in a commentary piece on Fortune magazine's website. "This leads to competition for scarce resources. We can do better; I've called for the creation of a European BARDA equivalent to help us build regional capacities."

The Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development has extended vaccine developers assistance, though limited in size and scope. With no guarantee of foreign-made vaccines quickly reaching Japanese shores, the country will likely need to help domestic developers increase their production capabilities as well.

Additional reporting by Taisei Hoyama in Washington.

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