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December 4, 2020

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The Global Race for COVID Vaccine

9 min read

TUESDAY WITH REUBEN ABATI

BY REUBEN ABATI

If there is anything that the COVID-19 pandemic has proven beyond doubt, it is how humanity depends on science for its survival. Every confounding development that has been thrown up by nature or biology since the days of the pre-historic man has been resolved, and humanity has advanced on the back of scientific discoveries, from the argument by Galileo, who paid dearly for it, that the Earth travels around the Sun and not the other way round, to the equally transformative discoveries and innovations from Pythagoras to Copernicus to the present. Research resulting in new levels of epistemology may have helped, but the threat of pathogens – viruses, bacteria, parasites, the plague, cholera, and natural disasters – the flood, earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones have shown over the years how vulnerable, small and terrified man can be in an environment, a world, in which he claims to be the most dominant of beings, the master of, answerable only to a Superior Being whom all faiths accept as the Master Builder. But the fact of being Human lies however in how man continues to strive to dominate his environment, his capacity to adapt, endure and aspire, and hence, out of every adversity, man pushes further – like Atlas, and Sisyphus, creating one of the greatest mythological narratives about the existential state. Against all odds, man continues to show a capacity to demonstrate that he is in a sense, a master of the universe, no matter the extent of the Unknowable that perpetually humbles him. I feel compelled to begin this commentary on this philosophical note on the back of the information now reaching us that scientists are now on the verge of finding a cure, a vaccine, for COVID-19.

Within the last week, three different big pharmaceutical companies, backed by the countries in which they operate have announced to the world, great advances that have been made in the race for the COVID vaccine. A week ago, November 9, to be precise, Pfizer, a US pharmaceutical firm, in collaboration with the German biotechnology firm, BioNTech announced that they had come up with a COVID-19 vaccine that is 90 per cent effective in protecting people from the virus. Although questions have been raised about the need for further peer review and the fact that there is a lot more that needs to be known considering the scope of the trials in this instance, while awaiting full results, the scientific community hailed the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as “a major breakthrough.” Pfizer announced that it could provide about 50 million doses by the end of the year 2020, and vaccinate up to 25 million people in two doses within the same period. Newspapers in England were ecstatic: The Daily Mirror referred to “the vaccine breakthrough” as our “little bottle of hope”, Daily Mail called it “One little jab for man”. The Guardian predicted that “virus breakthrough gives hope of vaccine programme by Christmas.” The Daily Telegraph was more emphatic: “A great day for humanity”, it proclaimed. The Times of London assured us that “Vaccine milestone heralds normal life by next Spring”. But it was the Financial Times that brought home to everyone the practical implications with its headline: “COVID 19 breakthrough brings boost to battered global markets.” And indeed there was a boost in the markets. Stock markets around the world appreciated. Oil prices also jumped, the biggest daily gain in 6 months.

Two days after the Pfizer/BioNTech announcement, Russia’s RDIF/Gamaleya Institute which had been working on a Vaccine known as Sputnik V announced that its own vaccine provides even better news for the world with a 92% achievement record. We were told that the Sputnik V is also as efficient as the Pfizer vaccine. Yesterday, there was even bigger news when it was reported that Moderna, a US based company had also come up with a vaccine that is 95% effective against COVID-19. All the companies involved are seeking approvals and authorizations and when that happens, the world may indeed be able to heave a sigh of relief. There have been all kinds of permutations and explanations about how the world can beat COVID-19: the most concrete has been the need for a vaccine, even if scientists are not too certain yet about how many doses may need to be taken in a year, and how frequently, and whether or not the virus will end up as another ailment that humanity would have to live with. We may still need to wash our hands, maintain social distancing and wear face masks for years to come, but a vaccine would, the scientists tell us, make our lives much easier.

There has also been so much talk about herd immunity, and whether that would work or not, but whatever advances may have been made, there is still a long journey ahead, a lot more to be known. The news from Pfizer/BioNTech, Russia, and Moderna is encouraging but the truth is that there are about 156 vaccine candidates out there, including efforts by Astra Zeneca, Johnson and Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, Novavax, Sanofi, at various levels of trials, which could further extend the optimism that science has brought at this point and which could further add to existing knowledge. Where we are, right now, close to the end of 2020, with regard to COVID-19 is both discouraging and encouraging: we are at a crossroads of sorts. The global total of infections is in excess of 50 million. The United States alone accounts for more than 11 million cases. As winter approaches and many countries in the Northern Hemisphere are now confronted with a second wave of infections, a fresh round of strong measures have had to be adopted with grave consequences for lives and livelihoods. COVID-19 has literally brought the world to its knees and it would take a while before our world would be the same again. What is encouraging is the fact that science is beginning to race ahead of the pandemic, or perhaps at par, or better still, playing catch up.. By January 2020, very little was known about the disease, its nature, management or future. Close to the end of the year, there is much better knowledge and a feeling of optimism.

As the world seems to make progress with the COVID-19 vaccine, which we are told is a better prospect than herd immunity, the big question is how to ensure that the whole of humanity gains access to the vaccine in an equitable and just manner. The Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus drew attention to this at a recent meeting in Berlin when he said, the gold test for any vaccine is safety and efficacy, and that there is a standard protocol to which every vaccine candidate must be subjected. He made the point that it is better for some people in all countries to be vaccinated than for all people in some countries to be vaccinated. Ghebreyesus was raising a serious point about what is now at the centre of the global COVID-19 vaccine debate: the politics of it with regard to COVID nationalism and global solidarity. From what we have seen, finding a vaccine for COVID-19 and being the first to do so, has become a matter of national pride. Every rich country is in the race: China, Germany, the United States, UK, Russia, France, Japan, Israel… In the process, each country is making plans for its own people: who gets it first after authorization, how will it be distributed, at what cost and who bears the cost. A handful of rich countries have already bought more than half of the future supply of COVID-19 vaccine doses. Left to the developed countries, poor and middle income countries are not part of that equation. These poor and vulnerable countries have no competitive research laboratories. They have no funds. They may have scientists, but those ones, no matter how knowledgeable, are better off in the advanced centres of the world.

The World Health Organization has tried to draw attention to this inequity by reiterating that the rich countries of the world need to help the poorer countries. The argument is that nobody is safe until everyone is safe. The key message of COVID-19 is that poor or rich, we are all interdependent. We share the same common humanity whoever we may be, wherever we may be. This is the point of the COVAX Alliance created by the WHO and the GAVI Alliance, the objective of which is to ensure that even as rich countries buy up the COVID doses, provision is made at the same time for poorer countries. At the last count, 184 countries signed up to the COVAX Alliance or the ACT-Accelerator as it is otherwise known. The WHO has been looking for money to make its objectives possible. Not all rich countries are contributing. The Moderna vaccine and its 95% projected efficacy was announced yesterday. The government of the United Kingdom says it has already ordered five million doses for its people. Poor countries do not have such capacity. With COVID-19 vaccine, the poor and the vulnerable are in trouble. How do we ensure equity? How do we insist on the common humanity of the world? Or is this a case of self-preservation? Why should the rich help the poor, when the rich are most at risk?

But the issue is not just about resources. It is about the quality of leadership in the poorer countries of the world. With the notable examples of Donald Trump’s America, a nightmare that is nearing its end, Magufuli’s Tanzania, Nkurunziza’s Burundi, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, and scores of unfortunate countries in Africa and Latin America. One key revelation is that the countries that have done much better in managing COVID-19, globally, have been majorly countries with good leaders. Africa is worse off in this regard. The simple assumption in Africa, except in South Africa, the only country that has been mentioned in the global race for a vaccine and which has paid more attention to testing and tracing, is that COVID-19 is a foreign affliction, from which an African is divinely and spiritually protected. For some reason, even the scientists are confused. Africa has not experienced the same rate of infections as other continents. Were that to happen, the tragedy would be writ large, but so far, the continent of Africa seems to be enjoying some form of protection even if there have been high profile COVID-19 related deaths in some of the countries. I think our people and our governments are simply living in denial.

In Nigeria at the moment, there are in fact many educated illiterates who would openly tell you that there is no COVID-19 anymore. Ordinary people stopped wearing face masks long ago. When middle class persons pretend to do so, they choose when it is convenient for them to do so. Social or physical distancing has gone off the list of guidelines. COVID-19 has migrated from being a pathogen to a symbol of fashion: the kind of designer face masks, sewn specially to match fashion apparels probably do not exist anywhere in the world. Every day, Nigerians hold one party or the other or a social event where nobody bothers to keep safe. Even prostitutes who complained a few months ago, that COVID-19 was bad for business are no longer unhappy. Their customers are back and business has resumed. With the recent #EndSARS crisis and the discovery of COVID-19 palliatives hidden away in stores and warehouses by politicians, many Nigerians simply concluded that the whole talk about COVID-19 is an organized scam, contrived and promoted to enrich corrupt politicians. It will be almost impossible for any Nigerian leader to convince the people, going forward, that COVID-19 continues to exist as a major public health crisis.

We have survived so far by sheer luck, it may be said. But if it is true that this disease which continues to mutate may still spring new surprises – a second wave, or an African variant of it, then African leaders must be better prepared. The developed world has left us behind in the race for the vaccine. We do not have the scientific capacity to compete with the more developed laboratories of the world. There has been some talk about some African and Nigerian scientists involved in COVID vaccine research but they are most certainly at the bottom of the ladder. What is certain is that Nigeria has been talking to Pfizer, through the office of the Vice President of Nigeria. Nigeria is also part of the COVAX Alliance initiative for vaccine equity. But I have not heard anything concrete about Nigeria’s plans to place orders for the vaccine, and a plan to ensure that vulnerable members of our communities and the general population have access to it, when eventually it is available. No responsible country relies on charity for ensuring the health and safe-keeping of its citizens. The Presidential Task Force must come up with an action plan for ensuring that we are well positioned in the race for the COVID vaccine. We need not wait for handouts, charity or the kind of token donation of a herbal concoction that we got earlier from Madagascar which turned out to be a hoax.


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