Covid vaccines again expose global inequity | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 22, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:10 AM, November 22, 2020

Covid vaccines again expose global inequity

Each time we learn about a potential Covid vaccine, there is jubilation throughout the globe. Perhaps, the most widely and closely tracked things in the world now are the most promising vaccines. Though the Oxford-led consortium had an early advantage in the race to finding an effective vaccine for convenient mass-immunisation, now it seems that Pfizer and Moderna have overtaken them. Whoever succeeds in the race deserves our appreciation and support. Accordingly, both Pfizer and Moderna have received global plaudit. There are about a dozen potential vaccines in the final stages of testing, known as phase three. But, the initial euphoria over Pfizer and Moderna's success is unlikely to last long, particularly in the developing world. Until and unless we hear about other potential vaccines succeeding, a grim future awaits billions of people.  

Vaccines developed by both Pfizer and Moderna have being described as game changers. Trial data released by Pfizer shows that the vaccine works well among the over-65-years age group of the population having weaker immune system. Another encouraging thing is the claim made by both of them that there have been no serious safety concerns. Based on the results of trials both of these companies have claimed 95 percent efficacy of their vaccines. Russia has also reported 95 percent efficacy of its vaccine Sputnik, but apparently, western experts are yet to be fully convinced.

Many immunologists, however, have reminded us that "efficacy" means the performance of an intervention under ideal and controlled circumstances and does not necessarily mean "effectiveness", which describes performance under real-world conditions. Both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are based on experimental technology that's never been approved before, and therefore, regulatory approval may still require some time. Authorisation for its emergency use, however, is expected in the United States within weeks.

In fact, a leading rights group, the Global Justice says that "Moderna's interest in releasing this data could be more about boosting stock prices than giving a clear picture of this vaccines usefulness." The group referred to Moderna's other bid earlier this year when it made "another very incomplete media release" that some of the company's executives were accused of cashing in on. Pfizer CEO's stock selling following their trial success was also in the news, though he had denied any wrongdoing by saying the sell order was issued prior to the trial results.

Initial jubilation in stock markets over Pfizer-BioNtech's vaccine, however, seems to have evaporated soon following the markets' realisation that its distribution poses a huge challenge even for the richer countries as it requires a maintenance temperature below 80 degree Celsius. Pfizer is promising only 50 million doses by the end of the year and it's a two-shot vaccine. It hopes to produce one billion doses in 2021 which is dependent on the success of building a cold chain. There are not many cargo carriers, particularly aircrafts, which are capable of carrying millions of vaccine viles safely to various countries. Moderna, however, says its product requires only minus 20 degree Celsius. 

The most crucial thing, however, is the rise of vaccine nationalism. It seems no one is willing to pay heed to the UN Secretary General's warning that "no one is safe until everyone is safe". Question of equitable sharing of a global good has been totally ignored by the richer countries and most of the first batches have already been swooped on by them. Unfortunately, the world is witnessing once again the power of money working against the disadvantaged during the pandemic, as happened during the procurement of testing kits and PPEs.

Moderna has the capacity to produce 1 billion doses of the vaccine in one year, but 78 percent of those have already been bought by richer countries. As a recipient of government funding to the tune of one billion dollar it is assumed that the United States will be the first to receive its first 100 million doses. In its deal the US has kept an option for buying another 500 million doses from Moderna. Moderna has indicated that its vaccine is likely to be priced at USD 35 per dose, which is almost 10 times costlier than the projected price of Oxford backed AstraZeneca vaccine. The United Nations backed project COVAX to assist low and middle income countries is also banking on the AstraZenca vaccine whose trial data is expected soon. Oxford scientists have made it clear that they are not in a race to release their vaccine before Christmas.

Therefore, it is difficult for countries like Bangladesh to celebrate the success achieved by both Pfizer and Moderna. However, Moderna has promised not to enforce patents during the pandemic. It enables us to explore whether manufacturing this vaccine in Bangladesh is possible. It can be noted here that Bangladesh had mooted the idea of manufacturing vaccines under licensing arrangements in the last Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum Agreement (TICFA) meeting held in August. Now is the time to pursue it seriously.

It would also be wiser to explore possibilities of partnering with other vaccine developers. Covid-19 is here to stay and scientists suggest vaccination could be an annual exercise like other flu jabs. The latest initiative by BSMMU to participate in the trial of Sanofi-GSK vaccine is a welcome move. Hopefully this initiative will not face the fate of Chinese Cinovac and make manufacturing collaboration with local pharmaceutical companies possible.

 

Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in London.

 

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