A researcher gets to work at Bio Farma's research and development laboratory in Bandung, West Java, in 2016. (Antara Photo/Fahrul Jayadiputra)

Pinning Our Hopes on the Vaccine Race

BY :CALVIN KHOE

APRIL 20, 2020

As the world braces for the worsening onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic, one formidable challenge stands out above all else: the discovery of a vaccine that can beat the coronavirus disease.

After all, this is how some of the previous pandemics – such as smallpox which killed between 300 million to 500 million people in the twentieth century were successfully pushed back and eradicated altogether.

The race for the Covid-19 vaccine is on, and the competition is intense. Soon after the outbreak in January, Chinese scientists made the laudable move to publish online the genetic sequence of the virus.

That was, in essence, gave an open challenge to scientists worldwide to help solve the puzzle. Since then, some 35 companies and organizations – and counting – have joined the race in the United States, Europe and Asia.

In the past, efforts to develop a vaccine took a long time – usually between 10 to 15 years. However, technological leaps in fields such as genomics mean scientists can now map out the genetic sequencing of the virus a lot faster.

That means, theoretically, scientists can develop a vaccine for Covid-19 much sooner compared to previous vaccines.

Hence, just over three months after the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, four companies out of 35 companies have started animal testing. By mid-March, human trials have begun in the United States and China.

AnGes, in collaboration with Osaka University, even has applied for a patent for a vaccine in Japan. The vaccine is being tested on animals, and they are aiming to start a clinical trial around September.

What is new and exciting in this search for the Covid-19 vaccine is this: the process is more diverse and inclusive. Western countries and companies no longer dominate it.

Transparent and open access for information is creating space for researchers and scientists to share their findings in a global collaboration, which The New York Times calls, "unlike any in history."

This open and intense intellectual environment, if allowed to bloom, renders the prospect of a vaccine more promising.

Yet, there are still miles to go. While the research collaboration may be global, vaccine development itself is always an expensive process, involving only a handful of actors.

Not every country has state-of-the-art labs, experienced vaccine researchers, manufacturing capacity and a large pool of funding.

The 35 companies and organizations that are working on the vaccine have no sufficient massive manufacturing capabilities. 

Norwegian-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) estimates the investments needed for the production facility to be around $2 billion.

The limited and expensive production costs lead to the fear of country monopoly and unequal global vaccine distribution.

When Australia found the swine flu vaccine in 2009, the country prioritized her national demand before exporting the vaccine, and even then, only a few countries could afford it.

Thus, the role of WHO to facilitate the coordination is very much needed to ensure greater distribution and access to the vaccine.

As we get to that point, we also need to get the politics right. The scientists can only work together creatively and effectively if the politicians cover their backs. That is somewhat tricky because politicians also have their political agenda.

In almost every country affected by it, Covid-19 has become a huge political issue. The pandemic shapes public perception toward their leaders, testing the competence of the bureaucracy, driving a sense of insecurity and impending turbulence and playing into electoral politics. 

In early March, for example, President Donald Trump pressed for a vaccine to be ready by the US elections in November – an unlikely deadline to be achieved.

The Covid-19 crisis has also reinforced the conviction of governments that biotechnology and biopharmaceutical is a strategic industry.

Some governments do not want to be beholden to a foreign country for their supply of medicines.

Countries that are pursuing the vaccine development program are doing so under an environment highly controlled by the government.

European countries are coming up with financial schemes and incentives to support and ensure the biotech companies stay in the country. The US is also doing the same thing.

These moves were predictable. But leaders and politicians should instead push for global cooperation to support multinational research consortium, mobilizing the much-needed funds, ensuring greater access and transparency that can accelerate the process to discover the vaccine for Covid-19.

Indonesia should definitely be part of this process. Unfortunately, Indonesian scientists are still somewhat left out – or left behind – of this international research cooperation.

Our assets in terms of credible laboratories are still minimal, among others: Eijkman Molecular Biology Institute, Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI), University of Airlangga, the University of Gajah Mada and the University of Indonesia.

To join the privileged international club of vaccine hunters, our scientists need adequate funding.

So far, the Research and Technology Ministry has only announced a Rp 20 billion ($1.2 million) funding for their research. This meager amount seems more like a bureaucratic token funding rather than a serious effort to be part of the vaccine solution.

Keep in mind that today, some 15 years after the H5N1 virus came to light, no Indonesian entity has produced a vaccine for the bird flu, even though the virus found in Indonesia was the strongest strain and thus best as a basis to develop a vaccine.

With all the uncertainties ahead, one thing is for sure. In essence, there will be more coronaviruses to come, as they have in the past, with equal, greater or less harm to humanity.

In their book "The End of Pandemics," Jonathan Quick and Bronwyn Fryer estimate that the costs of building an international system to protect against pandemics amount to about $8 billion per year. That is roughly $1 for every living person on earth.

I am sure the world can well afford this.

Calvin Khoe is a research and development program officer at Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) Research and Analysis

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