COVID-19: Cut corners, tricks and nationalism in the vaccine development competition

BBC 08-26

The new crown epidemic is still in a global pandemic, and it may counterattack in the fall and winter of 2020. At the same time, the international new crown vaccine competition has entered overtime, and countries hope to introduce effective vaccines to effectively control the epidemic before then.

In this competition, "vaccine nationalism" has intensified, and some countries have been accused of taking shortcuts, engaging in espionage, taking risks without moral restraint, and being jealous of other countries. Russia announced in mid-August that it would put into use a vaccine "Sputnik-V" that has been tested on humans for less than two months. President Putin stated that the vaccine has passed the required tests.

More than ten days after Russia’s announcement that shocked the world, a piece of news from Chinese state media also attracted outside attention.

On the evening of August 22, in the "Dialogue" column of China's CCTV, Zheng Zhongwei, the leader of the vaccine research team of the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism of the State Council of China, said that China has officially launched the emergency use of the new crown vaccine on July 22. He revealed that Chinese officials approved the emergency vaccine use plan on June 24.

However, a vaccine collectively developed by China National Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. was only approved to start international phase III clinical trials at the end of June.

Vaccines must undergo phase III clinical trials to verify their safety before they can move forward. It usually takes several years to develop a vaccine. The urgency and severity of the new coronavirus pandemic have greatly shortened the process of vaccine development.

It is not clear how many people have been vaccinated urgently in China. Zheng Zhongwei said that the vaccine is urgently used within a certain range and within a certain time limit. The purpose is to first establish an immune barrier among special populations such as medical personnel, epidemic prevention personnel, border inspection personnel, and personnel who guarantee basic urban operations, so that the operation of the entire city will have a stable guarantee.

Greatly discounted vaccine development time

The new crown vaccine is one of the most valuable and sought after medical research fields in modern society. This is not only because it can save lives and eliminate the impact of the epidemic, but it can also bring glory and recognition to those who succeed in vaccine research and development.

Lawrence Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University in the United States, said: "I have never seen (other) medical products have such a big political stake. Behind the political symbolism of the new crown vaccine is because The superpowers have regarded it as a symbol of their country’s scientific strength and a means to prove the superiority of the political system."

Professor Godin said: "We have developed a set of ethics for human participants to prevent abuse."

According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), there are currently about six leading new crown vaccines undergoing Phase III trials, including three in China; one in the UK; one in the United States; and one jointly developed by Germany and the United States.

Although all developers are working hard to speed up the pace, the Russian-developed vaccine "Sputnik-V" (Sputnik-V) has raised concerns about shortening normal procedures.

In July, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada accused Russian spy agencies of invading vaccine research, which the Kremlin denied. Intelligence at the time showed that this activity was more about stealing data rather than sabotaging vaccine development.

COVID-19: Cut corners

The following week, the U.S. Department of Justice accused two Chinese hackers of acting on behalf of Beijing’s intelligence services for vaccine development. China strongly denies this and says it has shared virus information with the world and cooperated with foreign countries.

Scientists believe that the bigger concern is actually shortening the often slow and complicated medical trials of vaccines.

Thomas Bollyky, Director of the Global Health Program of the Council on Foreign Relations at Georgetown University, said: “In the case of Russia, it must be a shortcut. It is not difficult to develop a vaccine. The difficulty is to prove whether the vaccine is safe and effective. . And if countries are only interested in the vaccine itself, they can take shortcuts."

The Russian approach has aroused doubts from Western scientists. Dr Anthony Fauci, one of the most prominent members of the White House New Coronavirus Task Force, said that he "seriously doubted" Russia's claims that its vaccines are safe and effective. In Moscow, this concern is interpreted as "jealous". The vaccinated people said they will soon publish the data in major international scientific journals.

At the same time, China has also accelerated the pace of research and development. However, the news that China has begun emergency use of vaccines at the end of July has undoubtedly made the outside world more worried about the safety of vaccines.

Some Chinese pharmaceutical companies claim that some executives have been vaccinated to test the vaccine in advance. This is to show that the person in charge is willing to take risks and make sacrifices. In Russia, President Putin's daughter has also been vaccinated.

There are reports that China and Russia testing the vaccine in certain groups of people, including the military, raises moral concerns because the consent of these people may be imposed. A vaccine developed in cooperation with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese pharmaceutical company Cansino began to undergo later "phase 3" trials after being approved for use in the military in June.

Failing to pass a comprehensive test to make a vaccine available may lead to public overconfidence and the further spread of the new coronavirus. In addition, a vaccine with serious side effects may encourage anti-vaccination campaigns.

The national will behind the vaccine

Most vaccine research and development programs are commercial activities, usually completed by international cooperation. But this has not stopped governments from seeing it as a symbol of national prestige and scientific strength. This is also a means for them to respond to external criticisms for ineffective handling of crises.

Poliki said: "Some countries seem to be particularly aggressive in vaccine research and development, mainly because of their domestic concerns about the evaluation of their anti-epidemic performance."

Since the outbreak of the new crown epidemic, the Chinese government has been widely questioned by the international community. Public opinion believes that the CCP's failure to respond to the epidemic in the early stage of the epidemic has caused the world to miss the best opportunity for prevention.

In the context of the US election, the Trump administration has also been under tremendous pressure due to its ineffective handling of the epidemic. Like Moscow, the United States did not separate the idea of ​​vaccine development from aviation competition. It named the vaccine "Warp Speed", inspired by the movie "Star Trek."

If the UK succeeds in producing its own vaccines, it will boost the prestige and confidence of the Prime Minister Johnson's government. The British government has also been widely criticized for its ineffective fight against the epidemic. British Health Minister Hancock said that “the UK continues to lead the world” in vaccine development. Like other countries, the UK also signs contracts to purchase vaccines from other countries just in case. But this raises other concerns about the vaccine race.

Vaccine nationalism

Poliki said: "There must be vaccine nationalism in Western countries. In the United States and the United Kingdom, it appears that the government monopolizes a large amount of initial vaccine supply."

Of course, nationalism was on the rise before the new crown virus rose. But the pandemic has accelerated this nationalism.

Countries that were initially eager to buy ventilators and personal protective equipment competed with each other for cash at airports, which highlighted their dependence on foreign supplies and stimulated domestic production capacity.

For all the talk about distributing vaccines internationally, those who develop it first may be able to ensure that they have the priority to save lives and promote economic development. Likewise, the government’s failure to ensure supply will lead to public anger and concerns about the ability to govern.

The head of WHO once again called on rich countries to join a global plan on August 18: sharing vaccines with poor countries. Tedros said: "We must prevent vaccine nationalism."

Countries may also tend to provide vaccines to other countries through diplomatic means, through "vaccine diplomacy" in order to gain goodwill and build international support.

Poliki believes that "every government with an early vaccine supply will eventually use some of these vaccines for diplomacy."

However, being first to market does not necessarily mean that the vaccine will be the most effective. Experts warn that this is not a race with only one winner or finish. This means that competition in the development and supply of vaccines may have just begun.

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