Over 200 vaccines are being developed for Covid prevention across diverse countries. Of them, 27 are in the trial stage. In a few countries lik the UK, Russia and China, a vaccine may be ready by the end of this year. The Oxford vaccine from the British-Swedish pharma company Astra-Zeneca is expected to reach the market soon. In countries including India, the third phase of trial is taking place now. The US firm Novavax is also in the final phase of their vaccine trials. Despite such a large number of vaccines in the pipeline of trials, there is still no room for comfort yet unless it is proved that any one of them is effective. At the same time, what all countries need, and wish is that at least one of them reach the market very soon.
Many countries have already started deliberations in advance about the distribution and marketing methods to be employed once the vaccine gets to the stage of manufacting. Some countries have even moved a step ahead with decisions about the subsidy for the vaccine and the retail price payable by the users. Things are moving at such a pace as though the only thing left is for a decision about which vaccine to use. When competition kicks in on that score, unhealthy steps are also discernible to dilute the safety measures in trials and a race to be the first to enter the market. This is not entirely driven by any concerns about public health. If that were the case, there would be insistence on conducting tests with utmost diligence and care and taking the required time for every stage of the process. However, as things stand now there are two factors that spur competition for a vaccine development. One is the 'vaccine nationalism', pointed out by the chief scientist of WHO Soumya Swaminathan. The other is perhaps the more harmful one, i.e. government-corporate nexus. If the former may affect the worldwide availability of the vaccine, the second may end up even in imposing an unsafe vaccine on the people.
Covid-19 does not discriminate between any groups. Nor is it a problem affecting any particular country or section of people alone. For that very reason, in the formulation of prevention and treatment of the disease, every country and society has to be viewed on the same level. This means not only sharing with other countries the vaccine being developed for one's own population. Since no community can ensure protection by themselves, the global availability of the vaccine is a need of every one. There is the experience of H1N1behind us. During the outbreak of that epidemic, the vaccine developed against it was stocked up by rich countries, and the poor countries did not have enough access to it. This did not become a big issue because the virus gradually died out, which is not the case with Covid. Experts tell us that Covid will not leave us very soon. For that very reason, as soon as a vaccine is produced, its universal availability has to be ensured. WHO should be in a position to take a lead in this.
Apart from universal availability, there are reports also about the government-corporate collusion that jeopardises the efficacy and safety of the substance. As a case in point, the privilege accorded to Biocon in India have already become a subject of controversy. It has been pointed out that the haste to roll out the vaccine fast, without adequate tests of safety and immunity, is to make capital out of a phobia of the disease. The allegation is that the crucial concession granted to the company by the regulatory agency for pharmaceutical industry, Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI), was in violation of time-tested health regulations. The third phase of vaccine trial was waived under the pretext of urgent importance of Covid prevention. However, in other countries, even without such relaxations, vaccine development has crossed three weeks of trials.
But the need to beat those vaccines in a race, is not borne out of public health concerns but of the companies' interests. Skipping the third phase of the trial will adversely affect not only the quality of the vaccine but also its credibility. And this is the phase in which a large batch of people prove their immunity, but numerous vaccines fail in that test. However, reports indicate that it is not even clear on what criteria the decision to waive it was taken and by which experts. The authorities should have been able to ensure transparency in this matter. While pursuing a solution for a crisis that affects the global community, narrow interests should not be allowed to vitiate it. The lesson imparted by Covid is that the protecting others amounts to protecting oneself; and the sooner every one learns that lesson, the more precise the prevention of the disease. Conversely, egotism, hyper-nationalism and profit-motive will pose that much of hurdles too.