The Race for a Covid-19 Vaccine: Political Disputes, Unwarranted Expectations, and Market Failures

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, over 170 research teams have been mobilised to develop a safe and effective vaccine. They aim to have it ready within 12-18 months, with hopes to curb the spread of the virus so that everyone can get back to normal life routines. However, this time frame is overly ambitious, especially when considering that the typical timelines for vaccines (including research, development, testing, and regulatory approval) are often about 10 years. In addition, many candidate vaccines fail during this process.

A premature release of a vaccine does far more bad than good

“Everyone wants the vaccine to be the silver bullet that gets us out of this crisis, but intense political and public pressure to release a vaccine before the science is ready could have devastating negative consequences,” said Dr. Trogen, a paediatric resident at NYU Langone Medical Centre and Bellevue Hospital in New York.

It is clear that the vaccine may not arrive as soon as many hoped for, leading scientists to caution against undue optimism.

However, there has been notable progress on the clinical front more recently.

Out of the 170 research teams, seven have entered Phase 3 which is the final stage before approval, where the vaccine is given to thousands of people to confirm its safety and effectiveness. Although it may be too soon to determine which of these candidates will be successful, the vaccine leading the race is the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca’s ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 drug which is currently being trialled in the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil.

Moderna, in partnership with National Institutes of Health, is also making notable progress as it plans to launch its final trial that will enrol 30,000 healthy people at about 89 sites around the U.S. On August 11, the U.S. government awarded the company an additional $1.5 billion in exchange for 100 million doses if the vaccine proves safe and effective. Despite this, Moderna still says it will not be able to deliver the vaccine until 2021 at the earliest.

The German company BioNTech in collaboration with Pfizer has also received backing from the Trump administration through a $1.9 billion contract for 100 million doses to be delivered by December and the option to acquire 500 million more doses.

On August 11, the Russian Government claimed to have fully developed a Covid-19 vaccine which is the Sputnik V – formerly known as Gam-COVID-Vac and developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute in Moscow. However, it was quickly dismissed as “winner” by researchers as it became apparent that it did not go through Phase 3 trials and had only been tested on 38 people.

China has also approved a vaccine, created by the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology and the biotech firm CanSino, but for limited use within the military.

A Nationalist Approach

With all this promising progress, there are also many obstacles that may push the arrival of the vaccine into 2021.

Firstly, this race is characterised by strong political rivalry as fears grow that nationalism may hinder progress, especially as a global effort is required to meet such a global challenge. European countries and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are encouraging a multilateral approach with a series of fundraising summits. However, the U.K. has steered away from a joint effort as it rejected the chance to join the EU vaccine scheme. Business Secretary Alok Sharma told The Telegraph that he does not feel there is “sufficient assurance” the U.K. will receive the number of vaccines it needs if it joins the plan.

The U.S. and China have displayed a similar sentiment, as they have both snubbed global talks on the vaccine. This has sparked fears that their intense rivalry could hinder global efforts to produce a universally available vaccine. Tensions between the countries heightened in July, as President Donald Trump formally withdrew from the WHO accusing it of being under China’s control in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Stephen Morrison, who runs the global health program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, stated: “What the United States has chosen in these recent meetings – not to attend, and not to participate – it has chosen instead to begin talking about a sort of go-it-alone approach.”

This, arguably, reckless behaviour demonstrated by the U.S. will only polarise China even further. This was observed as China reacted by drafting its military, as well as its pharmaceutical and biotech companies, in what some see as a struggle for “national bragging rights” according to the Financial Times.

As tensions increase, multiple accusations have emerged regarding theft of information related to research into a coronavirus vaccine. The U.S. Justice Department indicted two Chinese nationals for hacking hundreds of companies in the U.S. and abroad, and seeking to steal Covid-19 vaccine research. The U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has also accused Russian agencies of a cyber attack with similar aims. However, both the Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the U.K. rejected the claims saying they “make no sense” and “groundless”, respectively.

Further challenges will arise once the vaccine exists

Beyond geopolitical tensions, other challenges will surround the coronavirus vaccine once it exists, the most predominant being manufacturing capacity. This challenge has already materialised once during the pandemic, with many nations struggling to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE) to meet the high demand.

For years there have been warnings over the limited number of countries which have vaccine manufacturing facilities. As such, most countries will be reliant on the few that are able to produce the vaccine once it is discovered. This will limit production, making it difficult to meet the global demand.

Access and Equity

This leads to the rise of the second challenge: access and equity. Which countries will get priority access to the vaccine? Will producing countries limit exports to ensure they have sufficient supplies for themselves? Will it be an open market, favouring wealthy, and powerful countries? Or will there be more supply to the countries worst affected by the virus?

There have already been several deals secured by nations. The U.K. government signed a deal on July 20 to buy 90 million doses of "promising coronavirus vaccine candidates", in addition to their existing deal with AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. Brazil also signed a €113 million agreement with the same candidate for access to the potential vaccine. The deal gives it the right to produce an initial quantity of 30 million doses in December and January, when the vaccine is still in the testing phase. If the vaccine passes clinical trials, Brazil will then be able to produce an additional 70 million doses at an estimated cost of €2.05 each. Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and France have also struck a deal with the same candidate for the supply of up to 400 million doses.

The names of developing nations, aside from Brazil, seem to be absent from these deals.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that “none of us are safe until all of us are safe”, in the words of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO. In a teleconference he further reinstates that:

“None of us can accept a world in which some people are protected while others are not. Everybody should be protected.”

Therefore, it is imperative for nations to adopt an equitable system to avoid the failings of the swine flu. In this particular pandemic, the world’s richest countries scuttled to snatch the vaccines, squishing the chances of poorer countries, which were among the worst affected, to get fair access to any vaccines. This resulted in a disproportionate number of deaths in Africa and south-east Asia.

The Economic Impact of a Covid-19 Vaccine

KPMG have drawn up four potential economic scenarios for 2020 and 2021 dependent on the arrival of a vaccine.

· The upside scenario presumes that the pandemic is contained by September and economic activity recovers to a “new normal” from Q4 2020. KPMG see this as the least probable scenario.

· As the world still grapples to contain the pandemic, KPMG see the probability of a vaccine being available by around July 2021 (downside 1 scenario) now almost as likely it being available by January 2021 (base scenario).

· In the event the economy returns to a “new normal” only by August 2021 instead of February 2021 linked to the delayed arrival of a vaccine, then growth could halve next year. It would also destroy hopes of a travel sector recovery in the busy summer season, when international tourism is at its hottest.

· Downside 2 scenario examines the impact of no vaccine being available by the end of 2021, with social distancing measures and reoccurring lockdowns in place. This is probably less likely than the downside 1 scenario, according to an analysis by the Wellcome Trust and other scientists, but is more likely to occur than the upside scenario. KPMG’s analysis shows this will result in near flat growth next year.

Recovery is no guarantee of immunity

To conclude, although the development of a vaccine presents itself as the best hope for the containment of the pandemic and economic recovery, it may not solve the whole puzzle since long lasting immunity is not guaranteed. The WHO warned that there is no evidence that people who have recovered from infection are immune to reinfection. Further to this, Arnaud Fontanet, French Scientific Council expert, insists that "we will probably have a vaccine that will work partially." In agreement, Dr. Paul A. Offit, a world leader in vaccine development says, “even a vaccine that is 50 percent effective in preventing fatal illness might be acceptable.” Accumulating all this evidence sends a clear message, the end of this pandemic is still far away, so adjusting to this “new normal” is perhaps the best option.

If you have any comments please leave them down below. And with that being said, optimism is crucial; I am sure that 2021 will more than make up for this year!