October 29, 2020

IntelBrief: Competition over Cooperation in the Race to Develop a COVID-19 Vaccine

Pharmacist shows a flu shot Oct.14, 2020 (AP Photo/Lewis Joly)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • As COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly in many regions around the world, countries are racing to develop a reliable and effective vaccine.
  • Russia and China are openly promoting their respective trial vaccines, with some positive results, but no shortage of ethical and safety concerns.
  • The U.S. has continued to eschew international cooperation, working on numerous possible vaccines in various stages of development.
  • The backlash against science in the U.S. will hamper public health campaigns to distribute and administer a vaccine once it is developed and approved.

The importance of a developing and distributing a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 is impossible to overstate. To date, more than 43 million people worldwide have been infected with the novel coronavirus since it initially appeared in late 2019. Another 1.1 million have died from the virus. Communities have been devastated and the global economy is on life support. The numbers of infections and deaths are spiking in almost every region of the world, as developed and developing nations alike struggle to mitigate the fallout. Governments and societies, especially in the West, have failed to contain not just the spread of the virus, but also the spread of deliberate disinformation and growing distrust and outright disdain for science. In particular, the United States and its go-it-alone approach under the Trump administration is uniquely ill-positioned for the collaborative approach required to address the pandemic. Domestically, ad hoc state-and-local responses untethered to a broader national strategy have been met with predictably disastrous results. The ongoing presidential election adds to the tensions surrounding the virus and has amplified the sense of urgency for finding a way to get the country back on track.

Proposals such as simply letting as many people as possible get infected in order to achieve so-called ‘herd immunity’ seem devoid of logic, given the sheer numbers of citizens who would die as a result. Developing a vaccine remains the only realistic long-term approach. Public health measures such as widespread mask wearing and social distancing remain at levels too low to stem the spread. During the quarantine there have been record numbers of domestic violenceincidents, as well as a spike in drug and alcohol abuse and suicides. Against this backdrop of anger and grief, countries are racing to develop vaccines. China has already announced large-scale domestic distribution of a reported vaccine. It has also partnered with other countries in large-scale trials. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been in a partnership with a Chinese firm since July and, to date, more than 31,000 people in the UAE and other regional countries have taken part in the trials. These involve an inactive virus and require two doses. The UAE hopes to produce 75 million to 100 million doses in 2021. Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, is exploring several Chinese vaccine proposals as well.

In August, Russia became the first country to announce it had an effective vaccine, named Sputnik V, although there is good reason to be skeptical of the Kremlin's claims. The announcement has not been followed by widespread distribution of the vaccine and COVID-19 infections and deaths are again surging in Russia. Moscow made the announcement after an exceedingly small-sized study and skipped the normal phases that all vaccines must meet. Safety standards for a vaccine that will be given to billions of people are paramount and governments and private companies remain under enormous strain. Russia has already been implicated in hacking attempts to target laboratories working on the vaccine in the United States. Meanwhile, Washington has eschewed cooperation and instead decided to focus on developing its own vaccine. ‘Operation Warp Speed’ is the name of the public-private partnership to develop vaccines. The effort is being led by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), along with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH). The effort has been ongoing since March 2020 and as of October there are several versions in late stage development.

The race to discover an effective vaccine has become a global competition. The United States has continued its withdrawal from international cooperation in keeping with the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ transactional approach. The U.S. has officially notified the United Nations that it will leave the World Health Organization (WHO) on July 6, 2021. Among other complaints, the Trump administration has accused the WHO of being too favorable to China, especially after Beijing misled the international community about the severity of the coronavirus in the earliest days of the pandemic. But withdrawing from the WHO in the middle of the most serious challenge to global health in generations once again places the U.S. on the margins of international consensus, thus attenuating Washington’s influence. Meanwhile, China is positioning itself to assume a leading role in the pandemic response, while the United States is consumed by domestic political challenges, surging virus counts, and a floundering economy.