Image Credit: AFP

AstraZeneca agreed to make an experimental coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University researchers as the race heats up for the key to halting the pandemic.

Astra's goal is to have the capacity to produce 100 million doses by the end of the year.

The company is one of dozens around the world that have joined the competition, with the Trump administration preparing an effort making shots available for Americans by year's end. Astra's tie-up with Oxford shows how developers are aiming to manufacture vaccines even before they've cleared human tests.

As the coronavirus shuts down businesses and industries, countries are vying for a vaccine to help them get workers back in place and economies restarted. Oxford's swift work offers a glimmer of hope in the U.K., already beset by thousands of deaths and a continuing lockdown.

"This is moving very fast and we are working on the details," Astra Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot said by telephone. "The priority is to supply the U.K., and then the bigger challenge is to scale up to supply the world."

The experimental shot could reach late-stage trials by the middle of the year, ranking as one of the most advanced vaccine projects. Astra said Thursday it would join in the development as well as manufacture and distribute the product.

The vaccine developed by a team headed by Oxford's Sarah Gilbert entered human testing last week. It's one of at least 70 projects under development against the new virus, Sars-CoV-2. As the number of coronavirus infections globally exceeds 3 million, the pressure is growing to come up with solutions to the contagion.

Astra was one of several companies that were in discussions with Oxford, according to Soriot. The maker of the FluMist nasal spray vaccine, Astra hasn't been a big player in the market for shots. However, the company has massive capacity for making biotechnology products that are produced in cells.

The vaccine will be made in the U.K. as well as other countries, Soriot said. The accelerated timeline is "a stretch target," but he was optimistic about the vaccine's success.

"I think the probability it will work is pretty high," he said. "The technology has been validated, it's been tested in monkeys with very good results and now it has to be validated in humans. We'll have a better sense of this by June or July."

The Trump administration's "Operation Warp Speed" program will pull together private pharmaceutical companies, government agencies and the military to try to cut the development time for a vaccine by as much as eight months, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The Oxford team's vaccine candidate is a single shot that's been administered to 320 people so far, who reported mostly flu-like symptoms, headaches and arm soreness. AstraZeneca didn't provide financial details of the agreement.

Astra shares rose as much as 2.8% to 8,438 pence, the highest level in more than two decades, in London trading.

GlaxoSmithKline, Astra's U.K. rival and one of the world's biggest vaccine makers, has joined forces with France's Sanofi on separate development work. Astra is also working with Glaxo, the U.K. government and the University of Cambridge on making tests.

For the vaccine, Astra plans to rely on contract manufacturing organizations and other partners globally while ramping up its own production capacity, Soriot said. Based on the agreement with the government and Oxford, Astra will supply the vaccine at cost, according to Soriot.