It was hailed as ‘a great day for humanity’, as Pfizer, the American pharmaceutical giant, announced what can only be described as dazzling preliminary results from a phase-III trial of the COVID-19 vaccine candidate they have developed jointly with a German firm that goes by the name BioNTech.
An independent data and safety monitoring board, who are the only ones with access to trial data while it is ongoing, had notified the actual drugmakers that an early analysis of the results showed that individuals who received two injections of the vaccine three weeks apart experienced more than 90% fewer cases of symptomatic Covid-19 than those who received a placebo. For months, researchers have cautioned that a vaccine that might only be 60% or 70% effective.
In keeping with guidance from the US Food and Drug Administration, the companies will not file for approval or an emergency use authorization to distribute the vaccine until they reach another milestone: when half of the patients in their study have been observed for any safety issues for at least two months following their second dose. They expect to cross that threshold in the third week of November. It is the first time that the world is on the verge of discovering a vaccine to tackle an ongoing pandemic, and finally, one under the column for humanity, as Pfizer CEO Dr Albert Bourla had evoked in his note to various stakeholders. A world that has been locked down for the best part of an entire year could finally breathe a sigh of relief. Finally help was on the way. Right? Wrong?
Actually it’s right for some people, wrong for the rest. And the latter would include the majority of the world’s population. Because as the question in the public’s mind started turning to when it might be possible to get the two shots with an interval of 3 weeks in between, it soon emerged that this was not actually a vaccine for all mankind, but rather those who could pay for it. A clutch of rich world countries, led by the supranational European Union and the US not far behind, had already pre-ordered (with options for more) pretty much their entire production capacity through 2021. The UK government has proudly announced they bought the most doses per capita. And Japan and Canada have booked hefty amounts too.
This cutting edge vaccine platform, that uses techniques and technologies BioNTech has been working with for years to produce therapeutics for cancer, namely messenger RNA or mRNA, also must be stored in very specific environments, with the recommended temperature a harrowing minus 80 degrees Celsius. A group of UN experts condemned the countries “trying to monopolise any future vaccine against COVID-19.”
They noted that some governments are trying to secure vaccines “only for their own citizens.” That may not sound wrong, but the experts warned that it would prove counterproductive. Few are believed to be listening.