The stock market rocketed yesterday on news that Pfizer announced that its vaccine was safe and 90% effective. The company expects to present its trial findings to the Food and Drug administration in the US within days, so that it can become the first Covid-19 vaccine to obtain registration in the US.
So now the global pandemic is all over, bar the shouting? Hardly.
Pfizer has released preliminary findings that suggests its vaccine is more than 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19.
The vaccine has been tested on nearly 44,000 people in six different countries and no safety concerns have been raised so far.
Pfizer is now planning to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency approval to use the vaccine by the end of the month.
Yet health experts cautioned that the vaccine, should it be approved, was no silver bullet – not least because the genetic material it’s made from needs to be stored at temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius (-94 F) or below.
Such requirements pose a particularly daunting challenge for countries in Asia, as well as in places like Africa and Latin America, where intense heat is often compounded by poor infrastructure that will make it difficult to keep the “cold chain” intact during deliveries to rural areas and islands.
That is a problem for everyone in the world, given the World Health Organization estimates about 70% of people must be inoculated to end the pandemic, and Asia alone is home to more than 4.6 billion – or three-fifths of the global population.
While there is no first-hand information on the ability of the Caribbean nations to meet such a standard for storage of the vaccine, Philippines’ Health Secretary Francisco Duque told Reuters “On the cold chain requirement of -70 degrees, that is a hefty requirement. We do not have such facility,”
And even wealthier nations like South Korea and Japan are managing expectations.
“Storage is going to be a big challenge for us,” said Fumie Sakamoto, infection control manager at St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo.
“I’m not sure how well prepared our government is with regards to maintaining the cold chain. Hospitals in Japan usually do not have ultra-cold freezers, but I think it’s high time we started thinking about the logistics for the vaccine.”
Pfizer told Reuters that it had developed detailed logistical plans and tools to support vaccine transport, storage and continuous temperature monitoring.
Meanwhile elsewhere, there is a political row over Covid-19 vaccines brewing in Brazil, whose leader President Jair Bolsonaro is considered by some to be similar to US President Donald J. Trump.
CoronaVac a Chinese Covid-19 vaccine, has been caught up in a messy political battle in Brazil, where its most visible backer has been Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria, a top opponent of President Jair Bolsonaro, who is said to favor the AstraZeneca ‘Oxford’ vaccine.
The Brazilian regulator Anvisa said it had ‘ruled to interrupt the clinical study of the CoronaVac vaccine after a serious adverse incident’ involving a volunteer recipient on October 29.
It said it could not give details on what happened because of privacy regulations, but that such incidents included death, potentially fatal side effects, serious disability, hospitalization, birth defects and other ‘clinically significant events.’
Sinovac, however, said the incident was ‘not related to the vaccine’, adding it will ‘continue to communicate with Brazil on this matter’.
The public health center coordinating the trials of the vaccine in Brazil, the Butantan Institute, said it was ‘surprised’ by Anvisa’s decision.
It would not be surprising if political opponents of the President suspected political interference in the vaccine approval process.
Over in Russia, President Vladimir Putin said recently: “We have two registered vaccines in Russia, and the trials have already confirmed that the vaccines are safe, there are no side effects, and they are efficient. A third vaccine is in the pipeline. They are effective, the people who have been vaccinated and who have then had contact with people who have contracted the coronavirus have not contracted the coronavirus themselves, or they only have mild symptoms”.
Western experts are however skeptical about the proven safety of the Russian vaccines as trial data is still being collected on early volunteers such as health care personnel, law enforcement officers, and military, pointing out that the vaccines have not been properly trialed and evaluated for safety in the elderly population most at risk from Covid-19.
So, in terms of a safe, effective, and affordable global Covid-19 vaccine, there is still all to play for, and some experts think that another promising vaccine that is hardly ever mentioned, which is a dual flu and Covid-19 vaccine made by another US company Novavax, could still be a long-term winner.
And there are literally hundreds of other vaccines still in development including some made by major multinational drug companies such as Johnson and Johnson, and Moderna, which has received massive financing from the US government. Even Cuba has claimed that it is developing the Caribbean’s first Covid-19 vaccine, a claim that has been quietly ignored internationally.
But if ever there was a case study to prove that competition stimulates creativity, the search for the ultimate Covid-19 vaccine is proof of the pudding. And that can’t be bad!