The COVID vaccine challenge | Daily News

The COVID vaccine challenge

COVID-19 has been around for less than one year, but look at the damage it has caused to humanity so far – 55 million infected and 1.3 million deaths worldwide, including nearly 18,000 infected in Sri Lanka and more than 60 deaths. The unseen pathogen has devastated whole economies, advanced and developing, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Some countries are reporting more than 120,000 infections per day.

It is well known that viral diseases have no cure per se. It has been 100 years since the Spanish Flu ravaged the world killing 50 million people, but we are no closer to curing viral diseases. They can thus be fatal if the symptoms worsen and do not respond to treatment. The next best thing is a vaccine – indeed vaccines for various diseases save millions of lives each year. Sri Lanka is often cited as a “model country” when it comes to vaccination as it has eradicated several diseases through this method. Our vaccinations programmes have continued in spite of wars, insurgencies and natural disasters.

Ever since the Coronavirus emerged in January 2020, university research teams and pharmaceutical companies around the world have been racing to develop a viable vaccine. There is a real urgency here – we may never be able to go back to our normal lifestyles if a vaccine is not available at least by next year. Now the companies behind at least two of those vaccine candidates have released Phase 3 trial results, which indicate that they are both around 95 percent effective in preventing the onset of COVID-19. Both use messenger RNA, or mRNA, technology. It is a new approach to vaccines that uses genetic material to provoke an immune response. 

This is a victory for science in the quest for a way to stop the deadly pathogen in its tracks and a big relief for countries torn between the impracticalities of total lockdowns and the dangers of trying to achieve herd immunity.

But vaccine logistics can be daunting. The crux of the matter is, how do you deliver at least 14 billion doses of a vaccine to the world population, given that most vaccines are given in two doses? Technology and costs could be among other barriers. For example, the Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at -80 Celsius during transport and storage. Not even many advanced economies have cold chains capable of sustaining that kind of temperatures. Moderna’s vaccine candidate looks more promising in that aspect, as it can be stored at -20 Celsius during storage and then kept in a normal refrigerator for a couple of weeks until the doses are administered. Fortunately, most countries have his kind of medical infrastructure.

Costs and procurement are the other two areas of concern. International aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), for example, has expressed concern about pharmaceutical companies holding the power to decide who gets access to a vaccine, when, and at what price.

Moderna says a dose could be priced round US$ 35 (Rs. 6,500) while Pfizer says each dose could cost around US$ 20 (Rs. 3,600). Although the Pfizer vaccine is cheaper, transport and refrigeration costs could offset any savings in the end. Since there are several other vaccines from other companies that are still on trial, it is too early to predict which vaccine(s) will finally be available and their real cost. But it is doubtful whether many Third World countries could afford to buy vaccines for their entire populations on their own without World Health Organization intervention and/or subsidized pricing.

There is also the real danger that Third World countries could be pushed out of the purchasing process at least during the initial one or two years as developed countries have already pre-ordered huge quantities of both vaccines. Moderna has said it remains on track to manufacture between 500 million to 1 billion doses globally in 2021. It has committed to supply the U.S. with 100 million doses of its vaccine. Canada has ordered 56 million doses, the U.K. has bought 50 million, and Switzerland has procured 4.5 million.

Pfizer and partner BioNTech have secured agreements with the European Union for 300 million doses, Japan for 120 million, and the U.S. for 100 million doses. In fact, some rich countries have ordered far in excess of their populations, even allowing for two doses per person. The WHO should intervene and get facilities in developing countries such as the Serum Institute of India to manufacture these vaccines on a licensed basis if a crisis is to be averted.

It is also necessary for Governments to counter the anti-vaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories such as the one that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are trying to implant nanoscale microchips in people through COVID-19 vaccination. These theories have been debunked many times, but still persist online and in society. Vaccination, which is safe, effective and time-tested, is our best hope against COVID-19 and indeed, many other diseases. All governments must get this message across to their populations.