Haste Makes Waste – the Covid-19 Vaccine Race

While the world seems to have made it through the start of the second wave of increased Covid-19 cases, the next challenge is already at our doorstep: vaccine research and distribution. According to the World Health Organization, vaccines are one of the most effective measures to lower mortality during a pandemic and provide population-wide protection against infection. Yet, their development is costly, both in time and money. In addition to this, states often put their own interests first, making it difficult to pool resources and knowledge. While the United States has placed its bets on four clinical trials currently being run, in Russia advanced trials are being held with the vaccine Sputnik-V and at the same time, the European Union has invested €200 million in the Europe-wide distribution of certain vaccines. A vaccine by Pfizer/BioNTech was just reported to have successful tests. Still, this plurality of solutions and investments is crowding the vision of policy makers. What vaccine should be invested in? Who receives it first? While a vaccine seems to be the only way out of the current crisis, it also brings with it many more issues of global inequality and injustice.

To start, why is there such a rush? Next to the obvious prevention of infections, the development of a vaccine comes with academic as well as political prestige. However, this race for a “way back to normal” is causing more harm than good. The development of vaccines would much benefit more from a sharing of funds and knowledge rather than individual states investing in specific pharmaceutical companies. The way the process is currently approached may also lead to an ineffective rollout, which could worsen the pandemic.

In addition to this, the first vaccine to be introduced and used on a global scale is likely to become the new standard for future vaccines later in development. The first vaccine rolled out will set the standard for future vaccines. If the first vaccine is of poor quality, even marginally better vaccines will seem good in comparison to it. In addition to this, if the vaccine is of poor quality and does not lead to a sufficient reduction of cases or increase in immunity, it might be better to focus on social distancing rules. These are already clear to have an effect in reducing the spread of infection. A vaccine that is not good enough would only lead to a false sense of security. Because of this, scientists stress the efficacy of the vaccine over the speed at which it is introduced.

Finally, the race for a vaccine also brings to light more issues within the international system. Intellectual property rights are far from up to date to deal with such complicated sharing of patents. Unfortunately, the losers of this issue are likely to be found amongst countries already struggling with infrastructure and healthcare problems.

Although the situation seems grim, there are instances of cross-country coordination on this trans-boundary issue like the UN COVAX programme and the EU centralization of investment. The main vaccine manufacturers have also pledged not to go for emergency roll-outs of their vaccines, which would allow it to be put to use quicker but with less checks of safety and efficacy, until they are confident their vaccine works. The race for a vaccine is still far from being completed. For the time being, all we can do is wait to see where pharmaceutical developments lead us. Hopefully, once the vaccine role-out occurs, it is done with utmost efficiency, and efficacy in mind. This is an essential precondition to leave Covid-19 behind for good and end the pandemic on a global scale, rather than depend on states scrambling for their own benefit.

Further reading:
Foreign Policy – The World Is Losing the Vaccine Race
The Guardian – Covid vaccine rush could make pandemic worse, say scientists
UN News – Can ‘Open Science’ speed up the search for a COVID-19 vaccine?

Featured image:
Polina Tankilevitch, “Scientist in Laboratory,” February 11th 2020. Accessed 11/10/2020 via Pexels (free licence, no attribution required). https://www.pexels.com/photo/scientist-in-laboratory-3735769/?utm_content=attributionCopyText&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=pexels.

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