As the world nervously awaits the rollout of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines, everyone should celebrate and honor the incredible scientists who have developed them. In doing so, there are important lessons that should not be ignored. Above all, we have to remember that the vaccines must be for all mankind, not just the wealthiest people from the wealthiest countries.
These vaccines are the fastest ever to be officially approved for use on humans. The Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccines all took about nine months to develop, with the last two just awaiting final approval. The fastest before that was a vaccine for the mumps that was produced in four years, while most vaccines take about seven years. All of this required huge and tireless efforts. And, as with all major scientific progress in today’s world, it also necessitated collaborations and partnerships, including across borders.
One wonders how many people realize that a Muslim husband and wife team is to thank for the successful development of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. No doubt many who benefit from this lifesaving creation will not know, and some will even resent that Muslims were involved. Ugur Sahin founded the German firm BioNTech with his wife Ozlem Tureci, both of whom were born to Turkish immigrants. Remember that the far right in Germany has venomously targeted Turkish immigrants for years.
But go back in history and this is not the first time that Europeans have benefited from such medicine from the east. It is believed that the Chinese may have been the first to develop a vaccination against smallpox — a disease that blighted past generations. The Chinese learned how to transfer smallpox pustules from a sick patient to a healthy one, giving them immunity. This process was then transferred via India into the Middle East. In the early 18th century, while accompanying her husband, who was the British ambassador to Turkey, Lady Mary Montagu discovered that many old Turkish women had smallpox parties, where they would use a needle to inject smallpox matter into their guests. She took this knowledge back to Britain and campaigned to spread its use, even though many rejected such suspicious “Muhamedan” practices — perhaps the world’s first anti-vaxxers.
All of this is to highlight that the brilliant developers of the COVID-19 vaccines are the latest links in a long chain of scientists going back hundreds of years. They stand on the shoulders of giants from many different civilizations and nations.
The development of these vaccines appears to have been considerably more successful than other areas of the global handling of this pandemic. Far too often, countries and leaders have charted their own course, rejecting the sort of international collaboration needed to prevent the spread of the virus. China should bear primary responsibility for this due to its lack of transparency at the outset, but it is not the only party at fault. None of this augurs well for the vaccines’ rollout.
So will we see vaccine nationalism or a globalist attitude to their deployment? It is early days, but already the richest countries are the first beneficiaries. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was first approved for public use in Britain, followed by Canada, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and the US.
Public confidence requires that vaccine approval comes only after rigorous trials and testing. It may be impossible to convince the die-hard anti-vaxxers, including those who have promulgated hollow conspiracy theories all over social media. However, many millions of others may be described as vaccine-hesitant — understandably anxious about the possible side-effects that tests may not have picked up.
The rollout of the vaccines will test even the most advanced distribution systems. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, somewhat colder than an Antarctic winter. The Moderna vaccine can be stored at minus 20 C, making it more manageable if it is approved, but the easiest to distribute will be the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine, which only requires regular refrigeration. The uplifting element of this vaccine is that, on Oxford University’s insistence, it will be far more affordable than the other two, as it is being sold at a cost price of just $3 per dose to low and middle-income countries, rising to $4 to $5 elsewhere. Two-thirds of this vaccine will go to the developing world. Sadly, one company alone cannot supply the entire planet.
Richer countries must not hoard vaccines and they must accept that public health comes before corporate profits.
No doubt the world’s wealthiest countries will fare best. They can afford the infrastructure and the cost of the vaccines, and life in such nations will return to a quasi-normal state first. The richest countries have already purchased 96 percent of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Canada has acquired enough doses to vaccinate its population five times over. Crucially, access to the vaccine must be fair and ethnic minority groups should not be at the back of the queue.
But what about the billions living in less affluent countries? Initial estimates indicate that some areas of the world may have to wait until 2024 before their populations can get vaccinated. In many countries, even front-line health workers may struggle to get vaccinated next year. The People’s Vaccine Alliance reports that, in the 70 poorest states, only 10 percent of the population will get vaccinated by the end of 2021. Bottom of the pile, it seems, will be most African countries, but also war-torn countries such as Syria and Yemen.
This is why the work of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Covax mechanism is essential. So far, 92 low and middle-income countries are set to benefit. Covax will aim to provide doses for at least 20 percent of each country’s population. But this will not be enough. The COVID-19 pandemic will not be over until all countries can achieve herd immunity. It remains a global pandemic and that requires a global effort, the results of which should be shared by all. Richer countries must not hoard vaccines and they must accept that public health comes before corporate profits. Mass production of the vaccines free of any proprietary intellectual property should be permitted. The science, as well as the vaccine, should be shared just as it was 300 years ago.
Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding.