Moderna says UK deal will supply COVID-19 vaccine from March

(Reuters) – Moderna Inc confirmed on Tuesday it had agreed to supply its COVID-19 vaccine candidate, mRNA-1273, to the United Kingdom starting from the beginning of March, as long as it succeeds in gaining local regulatory approval.

The company’s statement did not disclose other terms of the agreement, including the number of doses it agreed to supply.

UK Health Minister Matt Hancock told a news conference on Monday that the deal would see the U.S. startup, one of two vaccine makers who have so far published positive data on final-stage trials, supply five million doses from next spring.

Moderna on Monday said mRNA-1273 was 94.5% effective in preventing COVID-19 based on interim data from its late-stage clinical trial.

Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in October started a real-time review of the vaccine candidate, a process which allows for a faster approval of a treatment.

The company on Tuesday also said it was on track to deliver about 500 million doses per year and possibly up to 1 billion doses per year, beginning in 2021.

It has tied up with manufacturing partners Lonza of Switzerland and ROVI of Spain, for manufacturing and fill-finish outside of the United States, to supply the vaccine to Europe and other countries outside U.S.

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Krishna Chandra Eluri and Patrick Graham)

Moderna vaccine is second to exceed expectations; mutated virus may be more vulnerable to new vaccines

By Nancy Lapid

(Reuters) – The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Vaccine from Moderna is second to exceed expectations in pivotal trial

Moderna Inc’s experimental vaccine was 94.5% effective in preventing COVID-19 based on interim data from a late-stage trial, the company said on Monday. That followed last week’s news that Pfizer Inc’s vaccine was also more than 90% effective based on initial data. Pending more safety data and regulatory review, the United States could have two vaccines authorized for emergency use in December. Both vaccines employ synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA), which coaxes cells to make certain virus proteins that the immune system sees as a threat and mounts a response against. Moderna’s trial involved 30,000 racially diverse U.S. adults, including people at high risk for severe COVID-19. Only five of the 95 COVID-19 cases in the initial analysis occurred in participants who received the vaccine, while the rest had received a placebo. The vaccine, administered in two shots 28 days apart, also appeared to prevent cases of severe COVID-19. Side effects, largely occurring after the second shot, included muscle aches, fever, headache and redness at the injection site. Moderna’s vaccine does not need ultra-cold storage like Pfizer’s, making it easier to distribute. Moderna expects it to be stable at normal refrigerator temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (36 to 48°F) for 30 days and can be stored for up to 6 months at -20C.

Mutated virus may be more vulnerable to new vaccines

The mutated form of the new coronavirus that is now the most common strain worldwide is more infectious but may also be more vulnerable to vaccines under development, new research suggests. In experiments reported on Thursday in Science, researchers saw that the newer strain, which originated in Europe, is more efficient at infecting airway cells and at making copies of itself, although it does not appear to produce more severe illness. The D614G mutation causes a “flap” to open on the tip of a spike on the surface of the virus, improving its ability to break into cells, but also creating a pathway for antibodies in vaccines to enter the virus and disable it, the researchers explained in a statement. New SARS-CoV-2 mutations are continually emerging, “like the recently discovered mink SARS-CoV-2 cluster 5 variant in Denmark that also encodes D614G,” coauthor Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine said in the statement. “We must continue to track and understand the consequences of these new mutations on disease severity, transmission, host range and vulnerability to vaccine-induced immunity,” he added.

Paper forms pose coronavirus risk for lab staff

When laboratory personnel are processing COVID-19 tests, there is a small risk that the paper forms accompanying the specimens can be contaminated with the new coronavirus, a new report cautions. Researchers at the Birmingham Public Health Laboratory in the UK analyzed randomly selected paper forms and specimen packaging during a period when the team was processing about 700 COVID-19 tests daily. Of the 37 items they tested, one piece of paperwork carried genetic material from the coronavirus. The form had come from a low-risk hospital ward, and the specimen from the patient was negative for the virus, “indicating contamination may be occurring as a result of environmental or healthcare worker contamination,” the researchers wrote on Thursday in the Journal of Hospital Infection. They call for “stringent laboratory practices” – hand hygiene, appropriate personal protective equipment – and “use of electronic test requesting where possible.”

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid, Julie Steenhuysen and Michael Erman; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Europe COVID death toll tops 300,000 as winter looms and infections surge

By Shaina Ahluwalia, Anurag Maan and Roshan Abraham

(Reuters) – More than 300,000 people have died of COVID-19 across Europe, according to a Reuters tally on Tuesday, and authorities fear that fatalities and infections will continue to rise as the region heads into winter despite hopes for a new vaccine.

With just 10% of the world’s population, Europe accounts for almost a quarter of the 1.2 million deaths globally, and even its well-equipped hospitals are feeling the strain.

After achieving a measure of control over the pandemic with broad lockdowns earlier this year, case numbers have surged since the summer and governments have ordered a second series of restrictions to limit social contacts.

In all, Europe has reported some 12.8 million cases and about 300,114 deaths. Over the past week, it has seen 280,000 cases a day, up 10% from the week earlier, representing just over half of all new infections reported globally.

Hopes have been raised by Pfizer Inc’s announcement of a potentially effective new vaccine, but it is not expected to be generally available before 2021 and health systems will have to cope with the winter months unaided.

Britain, which has imposed a fresh lockdown in England, has the highest death toll in Europe at around 49,000, and health experts have warned that with a current average of more than 20,000 cases daily, the country will exceed its “worst case” scenario of 80,000 deaths.

France, Spain, Italy and Russia have also reported hundreds of deaths a day and together, the five countries account for almost three quarters of the total fatalities.

Already facing the prospect of a wave of job losses and business failures, governments across the region have been forced to order control measures including local curfews, closing non-essential shops and restricting movement.

France, the worst-affected country in the EU, has registered more than 48,700 infections per day over the past week and the Paris region’s health authority said last week that 92% of its ICU capacity was occupied.

Facing similar pressures, Belgian and Dutch hospitals have been forced to send some severely ill patients to Germany.

In Italy, which became a global symbol of the crisis when army trucks were used to transport the dead during the early months of the pandemic, daily average new cases are at a peak at more than 32,500. Deaths have been rising by more than 320 per day over the past three weeks.

While the new vaccine being developed by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech will take time to arrive, authorities are hoping that once winter is passed, it will stem further outbreaks next year.

Citi Private Bank analysts described the news as “the first major advance toward a Post-COVID world economy”.

“More than any fiscal spending package or central bank lending program, a healthcare solution to COVID has the greatest potential to restore economic activity to its full potential…” it said in a note.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday said the European Union would soon sign a contract for 300 million doses of the vaccine, just hours after the drugmaker announced promising late-stage trials.

Yet health experts cautioned that the vaccine, should it be approved, was no silver bullet – not least because the genetic material it’s made from needs to be stored at temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius (-94 F) or below.

Such requirements pose a challenge for countries in Asia, as well as Africa and Latin America, where intense heat is often compounded by poor infrastructure.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan, Shaina Ahluwalia, Chaithra J and Roshan Abraham in Bengaluru, Sujata Rao-Coverley in London; editing by Jane Wardell, James Mackenzie, Nick Macfie and Mike Collett-White)

Pandemic takes center stage in holiday shopping ad campaigns

By Sheila Dang

(Reuters) – After spending the summer convincing consumers to take socially distanced breaks from grim reality, advertisers are now returning to the pandemic as the central focus in holiday shopping campaigns launching this month.

U.S. companies from carmakers to retailers are under pressure to make the shopping season a success after retail sales crashed 21% earlier this year as millions of Americans lost jobs and cut their budgets. They face the challenge of convincing consumers to open their wallets for the holidays even as the coronavirus pandemic rages anew across the United States and Europe.

As new campaigns roll out, brands feel it is their responsibility to inspire optimism for the coming year, but also empathize with “the hurt that people have,” said Jason Schragger, chief creative officer at ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi.

Carmaker Lexus’ iconic “December to Remember” campaign, which features cars wrapped in giant red bows on picturesque snowy driveways, will focus on the different role that driveways have played this year, as people sought ways to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and other milestones despite stay-at-home orders.

New TV commercials launching on Monday feature family and friends doing a drive-by graduation party in their Lexus vehicles as a student in a cap and gown waves from her driveway. In another, a man greets his children and grandkids from a distance as they drive by, waving a homemade “Happy Birthday, Grandpa” sign.

“We wanted to make sure we weren’t showing large gatherings of people,” said Lisa Materazzo, vice president of marketing at Lexus, owned by Toyota Motor Corp. “But it’s nice to have a live interaction, and that can happen when you’re safe in the car and waving from the driveway.”

Staying connected during the pandemic is the message behind ads for the department store Macy’s, whose window displays and Santa land attraction have been hallmarks of the holidays since the late 19th century.

At a time when flying home or hosting big family gatherings can be dangerous, Macy’s Inc is focusing on how finding and giving the perfect gift plays an even bigger role in connecting with people you can not see in person this year, according to Macy’s chief customer officer Rich Lennox.

A similar theme underpins Etsy’s commercial, in which a woman who longs to see her grandson opens a gift of a handmade doll that matches a picture he had drawn.

“You’re supposed to hug it when you can’t see us,” her grandson said over a video call while holding up the drawing.

PANDEMIC ADJUSTMENTS

Apparel retailer H&M has taken the pandemic-themed ad campaign a step further by changing how commercials are produced in keeping with the times.

The company will lean on influencers working from home to create content, and plans to provide them with outfits and holiday prop kits so they can take festive photos on their own, said Mario Moreno, H&M USA’s head of marketing.

Toy maker Mattel, which has targeted young fans directly on kids’ TV shows, is directing some marketing messages to parents this season.

The owner of the Barbie and Fisher-Price brands will craft digital and social media ads that address the struggle parents have with keeping their kids entertained and engaged after months of schooling from home, said Jason Horowitz, senior vice president of U.S. marketing at Mattel.

The ads will focus on gifts that can offer hours of playtime and mental stimulation while cooped up inside, such as a Thomas & Friends toy that lets kids make-believe that they are taking a trip from their living room, he said.

Expect optimism with a dose of reality at this dark time, ad executives said.

“There’s a lot of 2020 we want to leave behind,” Materazzo said. “But there are nuggets worth celebrating.”

(Reporting by Sheila Dang; Editing by Kenneth Li and Daniel Wallis)

China, Russia hold off on congratulating Biden; U.S. allies rally round

By Cate Cadell and Dmitry Antonov

BEIJING/MOSCOW (Reuters) – China and Russia held off congratulating U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on Monday, with Beijing saying it would follow usual custom in its response and the Kremlin noting incumbent Donald Trump’s vow to pursue legal challenges.

Democrat Biden clinched enough states to win the presidency on Saturday and has begun making plans for when he takes office on Jan. 20. Trump has not conceded defeat and plans rallies to build support for legal challenges.

Some of the United States’ biggest and closest allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia quickly congratulated Biden over the weekend despite Trump’s refusal to concede, as did some Trump allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday called for the European Union and United States to work “side by side,” holding up Biden as an experienced leader who knows Germany and Europe well and stressing the NATO allies’ shared values and interests.

Beijing and Moscow were cautious.

“We noticed that Mr. Biden has declared election victory,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a daily media briefing. “We understand that the U.S. presidential election result will be determined following U.S. law and procedures.”

In 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent congratulations to Trump on Nov. 9, a day after the election.

Relations between China and the United States are at their worst in decades over disputes ranging from technology and trade to Hong Kong and the coronavirus, and the Trump administration has unleashed a barrage of sanctions against Beijing.

While Biden is expected to maintain a tough stance on China — he has called Xi a “thug” and vowed to lead a campaign to “pressure, isolate and punish China” — he is likely to take a more measured and multilateral approach.

Chinese state media struck an optimistic tone in editorials, saying relations could be restored to a state of greater predictability, starting with trade.

KREMLIN NOTES TRUMP’S LAW SUITS

The Kremlin said it would wait for the official results of the election before commenting, and that it had noted Trump’s announcement of legal challenges.

President Vladimir Putin has remained silent since Biden’s victory. In the run-up to the vote, Putin had appeared to hedge his bets, frowning on Biden’s anti-Russian rhetoric but welcoming his comments on nuclear arms control. Putin had also defended Biden’s son, Hunter, against criticism from Trump.

“We think it appropriate to wait for the official vote count,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call.

Biden cleared the threshold of 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House on Saturday, four days after the Nov. 3 election. He beat Trump by more than 4 million votes nationwide, making Trump the first president since 1992 to lose re-election.

Asked why, in 2016, Putin had congratulated Trump soon after he had won the Electoral College and beaten Democrat Hillary Clinton, Peskov said there was an obvious difference.

“You can see that there are certain legal procedures that have been announced by the current president. That is why the situations are different and we therefore think it appropriate to wait for an official announcement,” he said.

Peskov noted that Putin had repeatedly said he was ready to work with any U.S. leader and that Russia hoped it could establish dialogue with a new U.S. administration and find a way to normalize troubled bilateral relations.

Moscow’s ties with Washington sank to post-Cold War lows in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Biden was serving as vice president under President Barack Obama at the time.

Relations soured further over U.S. allegations that Moscow had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to try to tilt the vote in Trump’s favor, something the Kremlin denied.

(Additional reporting by Brenda Goh, Tony Munroe and Lusha Zhang in Beijing; Darya Korsunskaya and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Moscow; Sabine Siebold in Berlin; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Catherine Evans)

Europe’s COVID curbs prompt pushback amid bleak countdown to Christmas

By Guy Faulconbridge and Richard Lough

LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) – A wave of COVID lockdowns and curbs has stirred resistance across Europe, with the right-wing British politician who helped force a referendum on Brexit harnessing popular anger at a new lockdown by recasting his Brexit Party under a new banner.

The United Kingdom, which has the highest official death toll in Europe from COVID-19, is grappling with more than 20,000 new coronavirus cases a day and scientists have warned the “worst-case” scenario of 80,000 dead could be exceeded.

Cast by his supporters as the godfather of the movement to quit the European Union, Brexit Party founder Nigel Farage said Johnson had terrified Britons into submission with a second lockdown.

“The single most pressing issue is the government’s woeful response to coronavirus,” Farage and Brexit Party chairman Richard Tice said in a joint article in the Daily Telegraph, announcing his Reform UK party.

“Ministers have lost touch with a nation divided between the terrified and the furious. The debate over how to respond to COVID is becoming even more toxic than that over Brexit.”

Instead of a lockdown, Farage proposed targeting those most at risk and said people should not be criminalized for trying to live normal lives such as meeting family for Christmas.

France, Germany, Italy, Britain, the Netherlands and other countries have announced second lockdowns or strict new curbs as infections surge.

Small shopkeepers in France have complained about being forced to close while supermarkets are allowed to sell “non-essential goods” such as shoes, clothes, beauty products and flowers because they also sell food.

CHRISTMAS CANCELLED?

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Monday French supermarkets would face the same limits on selling non-essential goods but shop owners were not allowed to challenge the lockdown, in place until at least Dec. 1.

“I am not optimistic that in just four weeks we will lower the number of new cases to the level announced by the president (5,000 new cases per day),” said epidemiologist Dominique Castigliola, director of research at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research.

“We will need more time. I don’t think we’ll be able to hold big family meals at Christmas. That seems very unlikely to me.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week denounced populists who say the coronavirus is harmless as dangerous and irresponsible.

“Throughout the winter months, we will have to limit private contacts,” she told a news conference. “The light at the end of the tunnel is still quite a long way off.”

Police in the Spanish capital, Madrid, on Sunday raided 81 illegal parties, 18 drinking sessions known in Spain as “botellones,” and 10 bars which broke COVID-19 curbs.

Protests flared against new restrictions across Italy last week, with violence reported in Milan and Turin. Italy will tighten restrictions but is holding back from a lockdown, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Monday.

Italy’s daily tally of infections has increased 10-fold over the last month.

“It is a monumental debacle. The fact that Italy is in the same situation as other countries in Europe is no comfort to me,” virologist Andrea Crisanti told Reuters. “We had five months to strengthen our surveillance, tracking and prevention systems and instead we are heading towards a new lockdown.”

More than 46.37 million people have been infected globally and 1,198,168​ have died from the respiratory disease, according to a Reuters tally. The United States, which holds a presidential election on Tuesday, leads the world with more than 9 million cases and 230,700 deaths.

Iran, the Middle East country worst hit by COVID-19, reported a record 440 deaths in the past 24 hours.

World shares recovered from one-month lows as strengthening factory data in China and Europe offset news of lockdowns, while investors prepared for more volatility arising from the U.S. presidential election.

U.S. President Donald Trump has continually downplayed the virus, mocking Democratic challenger Joe Biden for wearing a mask and social distancing at campaign rallies, a tactic which enlivens his base supporters but infuriates his opponents.

Trump has also ridiculed his top coronavirus task force adviser, Anthony Fauci, who has contradicted Trump’s assertions that the U.S. fight against the virus is “rounding the turn”.

The United States reported 67,862 new cases on Sunday, the highest number it has reported on the last day of any week. The seven-day average hit 81,540, a new record, and has risen for 30 days in a row.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux worldwide; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Giles Elgood/Mark Heinrich)

COVID-19 again? Reinfection cases raise concerns over immunity

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – The case of a man in the United States infected twice with COVID-19 shows there is much yet to learn about immune responses and also raises questions over vaccination, scientists said on Tuesday.

The 25-year old from Reno, Nevada, tested positive in April after showing mild symptoms, then got sick again in late May with a more serious bout, according to a case report in the Lancet Infectious Diseases medical journal.

Scientists said that while known incidences of reinfection appear rare – and the Nevada man has now recovered – cases like his were worrying. Other isolated cases of reinfection have been reported around the world, including in Asia and Europe.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that reinfections are possible, but we can’t yet know how common this will be,” said Simon Clarke, a microbiology expert at Britain’s Reading University.

“If people can be reinfected easily, it could also have implications for vaccination programs as well as our understanding of when and how the pandemic will end.”

‘STILL DON’T KNOW ENOUGH’

The Nevada patient’s doctors, who first reported the case in a non peer-reviewed paper in August, said sophisticated testing showed that the virus strains associated with each bout of infection were genetically different.

“These findings reinforce the point that we still do not know enough about the immune response to this infection,” said Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

Brendan Wren, a professor of vaccinology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the Nevada case was the fifth confirmed example of reinfection worldwide.

“The demonstration that it is possible to be reinfected by SARS-CoV-2 may suggest that a COVID-19 vaccine may not be totally protective,” he said. “However, given the (more than) 40 million cases worldwide, these small examples of reinfection are tiny and should not deter efforts to develop vaccines.”

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

One in 10 may have caught COVID, as world heads into ‘difficult period’: WHO

By Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – Roughly one in 10 people may have been infected with the coronavirus, leaving the vast majority of the world’s population vulnerable to the COVID-19 disease it causes, the World Health Organization said on Monday.

Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergency expert, was addressing the agency’s Executive Board, where the United States made a thinly veiled swipe at China for what it called a “failure” to provide accurate and timely information on the outbreak.

But Zhang Yang of China’s National Health Commission, said: “China has always been transparent and responsible to fulfill our international obligations.” China maintained close contacts with all levels of the U.N. health agency, she added.

Ryan said that outbreaks were surging in parts of southeast Asia and that cases and deaths were on the rise in parts of Europe and the eastern Mediterranean region.

“Our current best estimates tell us about 10% of the global population may have been infected by this virus. It varies depending on country, it varies from urban to rural, it varies depending on groups. But what it does mean is that the vast majority of the world remains at risk,” Ryan said.

“We are now heading into a difficult period. The disease continues to spread,” he said.

The WHO and other experts have said that the virus, believed to have emerged in a food market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, is of animal origin.

The WHO has submitted a list of experts to take part in an international mission to China to investigate the origin, for consideration by Chinese authorities, Ryan said, without giving details.

U.S. assistant health secretary Brett Giroir said that it was critical that WHO’s 194 member states receive “regular and timely updates, including the terms of reference for this panel or for any field missions, so that we can all engage with the process and be confident in the outcomes”.

Germany, speaking for the EU, said the expert mission should be deployed soon, with Australia also supporting a swift investigation.

Meanwhile, Alexandra Dronova, Russia’s deputy health minister, called for an evaluation of the legal and financial repercussions of the Trump administration announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the WHO next July.

The United States will not pay some $80 million it owes the WHO and will instead redirect the money to help pay its U.N. bill in New York, a U.S. official said on Sept. 2.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge; writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Alison Williams)

Exclusive: New global lab network will compare COVID-19 vaccines head-to-head

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – A major non-profit health emergencies group has set up a global laboratory network to assess data from potential COVID-19 vaccines, allowing scientists and drugmakers to compare them and speed up selection of the most effective shots.

Speaking to Reuters ahead of announcing the labs involved, Melanie Saville, director of vaccine R&D at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), said the idea was to “compare apples with apples” as drugmakers race to develop an effective shot to help control the COVID-19 pandemic.

The centralized network is the first of its kind to be set up in response to a pandemic.

In a network spanning Europe, Asia and North America, the labs will centralize analysis of samples from trials of COVID-19 candidates “as though vaccines are all being tested under one roof”, Saville said, aiming to minimize the risk of variation in results.

“When you start off (with developing potential new vaccines) especially with a new disease, everyone develops their own assays, they all use different protocols and different reagents – so while you get a readout, the ability to compare between different candidates is very difficult,” she told Reuters.

“By taking the centralized lab approach … it will give us a chance to really make sure we are comparing apples with apples.”

The CEPI network will initially involve six labs, one each in Canada, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Bangladesh and India, Saville said.

Hundreds of potential COVID-19 vaccines are in various stages of development around the world, with shots developed in Russia and China already being deployed before full efficacy trials have been done, and front-runners from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca likely to have final-stage trial results before year-end.

Typically, the immunogenicity of potential vaccines is assessed in individual lab analyses, which aim to see whether biomarkers of immune response – such as antibodies and T-cell responses – are produced after clinical trial volunteers receive a dose, or doses, of the vaccine candidate.

But with more than 320 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in the works, Saville said, the many differences in data collection and evaluation methods are an issue.

As well as potential variations in markers of immunity, there are differences in how and where samples are collected, transported and stored – all of which can impact the quality and usefulness of the data produced, and make comparisons tricky.

And with a range of different vaccine technologies being explored – from viral vector vaccines to ones based on messenger RNA – standard evaluation of their true potential “becomes very complex”, she said.

“With hundreds of COVID-19 vaccines in development … it’s essential that we have a system that can reliably evaluate and compare the immune response of candidates currently undergoing testing,” she said.

By centralizing the analysis in a lab network, much of what Saville called the “inter-laboratory variability” can be removed, allowing for head-to-head comparisons.

CEPI says all developers of potential COVID-19 vaccines can use the centralized lab network for free to assess their candidates against a common protocol. For now, the network will assess samples from early-stage vaccine candidate testing and first and second stage human trials, but CEPI said it hoped to expand its capacity to late stage (Phase III) trial data in the coming months.

Results produced by the network will be sent back to the developer, with neither CEPI nor the network owning the data.

CEPI itself is co-funding nine of the potential COVID-19 vaccines in development, including candidates from Moderna, AstraZeneca, Novavax and CureVac.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Mark Potter)

French labs show how global supply bottlenecks thwart effort to ramp up testing

By Richard Lough

PARIS (Reuters) – Mass testing was meant to be the answer to the second wave. Politicians promised that with enough tests, conducted quickly enough, they could keep the coronavirus in check, without having to resort to lockdowns that crippled economies six months ago.

But so far, with a surge sweeping Europe just as students return to school and university, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. There aren’t enough tests, and they are taking too long.

Pierre-Adrien Bihl, who runs four labs that together conduct 800 tests a day in eastern France, has one explanation for what has gone wrong: a global supply chain that can’t keep up.

“I spend my days checking orders have been made and received and hassling my supplier to deliver, deliver, deliver,” he said. “But all their clients demand the same thing.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, like other European leaders, has pressed for a swift increase in tests. His government promises that anyone who needs a test can get one.

But five companies that operate laboratories in Paris and eastern France told Reuters there was simply no way they could work any faster, as long as they are struggling to obtain chemicals and test kits that are mainly produced abroad.

This week, Bihl said, he had to take his diagnostic machine offline for nearly 24 hours, after a four-day delay in the delivery of some single-use parts.

The shutdown forced Bihl to reduce testing appointments until the backlog could be made up, he said, adding that such shutdowns were taking place three or four times a month.

Arthur Clement, who runs four laboratories, said the U.S. manufacturer of his diagnostic machine, Cepheid, was sending him just 300 test kits per month at the end of the summer, as cases surged.

With his labs performing 25,000 tests per month, Clement had to send nearly all of them out to a third party, where they were taking up to 7-10 days to get results. Cepheid did not respond to a request for comment.

Clement ordered a new diagnostic machine from a South Korean manufacturer two months ago, which finally arrived last Friday, and now he says he can perform all tests in-house and deliver results in a day.

GLOBAL MARKET

In Paris, queues snake out of testing centers each day, with lines forming before sunrise at some. People with COVID symptoms are waiting on average three days for their results, according to official data, though for some the wait can be double.

France is now conducting more than 1.2 million polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests per week in response to the epidemic, which has killed more than 31,000 people in the country and infected nearly half a million.

The French health ministry denies that there is a nationwide shortage of chemicals. It says there have been localized shortages in some parts of the country, but the overall supply is adequate. Health Minister Olivier Veran has said France has access to supplies of reagents equivalent to double the actual demand for tests.

But laboratories can’t just order chemicals from anywhere: testing machines typically require proprietary chemical kits and tools, some of which can be obtained only from the manufacturer.

The ministry recommends laboratories diversify their suppliers of testing machines, to mitigate the risk of one supply chain becoming blocked. But that means buying extra machines to duplicate capacity, which costs more money and can take months.

Suppliers of the machines to French labs include Cepheid and Becton Dickinson in the United States, Switzerland’s Roche, and France’s Biomerieux and Eurobio Scientific.

Cepheid, Roche and Eurobio Scientific did not respond to requests for comment on the supply of COVID equipment and reagents.

Becton Dickinson told Reuters in an email it was delivering more than 1 million tests per month globally. It acknowledged that this has fallen short of demand, but said it aims to scale up to 1.9 million per month by late 2020.

Biomerieux said its sites in France had spare capacity.

Lionel Barrand, one of the five laboratory operators who spoke to Reuters, said the supply-chain crunch was partly rooted in France’s reliance on imported reagents. He estimated 90% of COVID-19 reagents used in France were sourced overseas.

“We depend heavily on the global market,” said Barrand, who heads a laboratory industry group, the Syndicat National des Jeunes Biologistes.

Some of the French laboratories worry that U.S. suppliers such as Cepheid and Becton Dickinson are prioritizing labs in the United States, where healthcare costs are higher and profit margins bigger.

Becton Dickinson said it allocates test kits using quotas, which are set on the basis of the number of its testing machines in a country and the severity of outbreaks.

“We do not use pricing, margins or profit as a factor in our allocations,” the company said.

(Reporting by Richard Lough; Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont; Editing by Peter Graff)