half a billion dollars from the federal government for COVID-19 vaccine research, has promised to pro- vide up to 900 million doses on a not-for-profit basis, if its trials pan out. Other companies have agreed to produce vaccines on a “cost-plus” basis, with a smaller-than-usual profit margin.
Other analysts share her guarded optimism. Kelly Moore, who teaches health policy at Vanderbilt Uni- versity Medical Center, oversaw Tennessee’s immuni- zation programs for more than a decade, and later be- came a member of the Sabin-Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group—a panel of international experts that in 2019 released a report titled “Accelerating the Devel- opment of a Universal Influenza Vaccine.” (The group is affiliated with the Aspen Institute, a co-publisher of this magazine.) The 117-page document provided a road map toward a long-sought goal: creating a flu shot that doesn’t need to be reformulated each year to target changing viral strains. “One lesson we learned was that it’s crucial to deploy financial resources in a systematic way to support coordination among laboratories that would typically be competitors,” Moore says. And that, she adds, is happening with COVID-19, despite nationalist fric- tions: scientists from Sanofi joining forces with those at rival GSK; researchers at other companies allying with teams at government laboratories; university labs worldwide sharing data across borders. “I have been greatly encouraged to see the amount of global collaboration involved in this enterprise. Partners are working together who would normally never be partners.” For Moore, whose 77-year-old mother survived a bout with the disease, the current pandemic has hit close to home. “It’s essential to realize that a threat anywhere is a threat everywhere,” she says. “Morally and ethical- ly, we have a tremendous obligation to ensure that the most vulnerable have access to an affordable vaccine, irrespective of where they live.”
How Sharing Can Pay Off
No one knows how all this will work out if and when a vaccine becomes available. (Another wild card: Washington has threatened to cut funding to the WHO over its alleged favoritism toward China, which could hobble the agency’s ability to coordinate distribution.) To public health experts, however, it’s clear that ensur- ing accessibility is not just a matter of altruism. “A historic example is smallpox,” Rebecca Weintraub observes. “When it kept getting reintroduced into high-income countries from low-income countries, the rich countries realized it was worth investing in the vaccine for countries that couldn’t afford it.” After a two-decade campaign led by the WHO, the last case of this ancient scourge was diagnosed in 1977. Conversely, vaccine nationalism doesn’t just hurt poor countries. During the H1N1 pandemic, which killed an estimated 284,000 people worldwide, produc- tion problems led to shortages in the United States. But Australia stopped a domestic manufacturer from exporting doses to the U.S until all Aussies had been immunized. Such considerations, Weintraub believes, might help convince even the most reluctant rich-country leaders that an accessible vaccine—if deployed in an epidemiologically targeted way—would serve both the greater good and the national interest. “I suspect the pressures put on our politicians to act globally will be significant,” she says.
Kenneth Miller (www.kennethmiller.net) is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles. He is a contributing editor at Discover , and has reported from four continents for publications including Time , Life , Rolling Stone , Mother Jones , and Aeon .
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