Would calls for cooperation on coronavirus vaccine end in a brawl for spoils?
By Revathi Siva Kumar
The world today is facing a common enemy – the deadly coronavirus with cases surpassing four million and over 280,000 deaths worldwide.
Nations around the world from India to the United States are vying to find a weapon to slay the invisible monster that has upended lives and ambushing economies part by part?
A race is on to acquire a vaccine to fight the covid-19 pandemic. While the need for a vaccine is immediate and urgent, no fix-up has ever been made in such a short time.
Only scientists know how deep the risks are and some have confessed privately that it is well nigh impossible to affirm whether a vaccine can be developed at all.
Historically, the quickest that a vaccine took to develop was five years. However, it takes probably ten years to get the vaccine to the market place. While the short-time safety might be guaranteed, the long-term efficacy is a matter of concern.
Some signs of cooperation are visible. In a collaborative spirit, some nations such as France and Germany, have secured pledges of 7.4 billion euro ($8 billion) at virtual fund raisers.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has called for cooperation on vaccine for seven billion people. It has pledged to help build the manufacturing capacity in order to ensure the vaccines are available to all.
Different vaccine technologies are being tried out. There are more than 102 candidate vaccines that researchers are working on. Out of these, eight methods are being tested in human clinical trials.
Various countries are involved in the discovery and testing, but only China has reached Phase 2, or attempts to explore safety and efficacy on larger groups.
However, undercurrents also indicate that the aim is not just on cooperation and working together, but on who gets the vaccine faster and better.
Hence, even though the enemy is the same, the race for getting a vaccine out ahead of others is also flying high.
The fallout would not only be the gains for the manufacturing country, but also the optics it enhances in terms of technological skills and global perception.
Going by past experience, while cooperation always begins to be the buzzword, the situation soon turns out to be more competitive than collaborative.
During the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic, for instance, many states had issued declarations for collaboration in developing vaccines and distributing them.
However, once the vaccines became available, some countries just rushed to acquire and store them for their own people.
Hence despite President Donald Trump’s announcement that it does not matter who develops a vaccine first, the US is indeed in fierce competition with China and is collaborating with Australia and the UK to get there first.
The US has announced Operation Warp Speed, which pulls together the unlikeliest of bedfellows – pharmaceutical companies, government bodies and the military.
Even if another country makes the breakthrough, the US is gearing up to manufacture the drugs. US Vice President Mike Pence announced that the administration is targeting 300 million doses, enough to inoculate most of America by January 2021.
On the other hand, its arch enemy, China already has an edge in the battle of the vaccine. About 508 volunteers have joined a second phase trial for a potential vaccine that the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences is developing with a Tianjin-based company, CanSino Biologics.
Will China beat the US to it? It does claim to be doing so. The US has slammed the World Health Organization (WHO) for failing to isolate China and preventing the spread of the virus. The two countries are also engaged in cooking up conspiracy theories, blaming the other for failing to contain the pandemic.
There are rumors and whispers that China is ‘weaponizing’ the coronavirus vaccine. Many countries are getting incensed at China swaggering about its ‘superior’ medical and political system and publicizing its selective airlifts of medical aid to some countries.
It is pushing to take over everything in industry, even 5G communication networks.
On the other side of the battlefield, there are also signs that the fierce geopolitical competition has only aroused suspicions among even allied countries.
Germany has slammed the US with charges of ‘modern piracy’ and poaching on Chinese protective gear meant for it. While the US has denied the accusation, Germans remain unconvinced.
Europeans are introducing rules to prevent their pharmaceutical firms from being taken over. Russia is working towards self-sufficiency and has at least four vaccine projects underway, including Novosibirsk Vector.
But their goal is to protect their own country from being outrun by rivals. The British too have jumped in. An Oxford researcher says that if an Oxford University project proves to be successful, the British will lead the research.
India has 30 vaccines that are currently in various stages of development. Some will hit human trials in a few months.
But worryingly, apart from the medical problems, global economic doldrums too threaten the world. While China claims to have emerged from the effects and is working on reviving the economy, the US and European countries are beginning to sink into debt.
The lack of effective German and other European nations’ efforts to stem the Italian crisis opened a window of opportunity for China and Russia to jump into the fray and send medical shipments to the beleaguered country.
Ultimately, the fierce race for the vaccines might lead to speedy breakthroughs and manufacture of a cure. But at the same time, competition rather than collaboration could even push it back. The world is just poised on the edge of a make or break situation!