Vaccine race stripped of moral ground

Editorial | Mary Ma 20 May 2020

The race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine has reached a critical stage now that a handful of studies have emerged with the potential to begin larger clinical trials.

Massachusetts-based company Moderna was among the latest to report early results. It said a vaccine based on an unconventional approach has been shown to be safe and well-tolerated in a small group of volunteers and that bigger trials will be done to determine its efficacy.

The race for a cure is not only massive, but also unprecedented.

It may be ironic but, as the race escalates, all safeguard protocols deemed essential to the development of a safe medical product have been lowered to grant maximum expediency to what would previously have been an extremely lengthy process. But I hope that such expediency is not just about convenience.

Let's look back on what top Hong Kong microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung has said. While his remarks on the virus were rarely disputed - except for the time he criticized Chinese people's fervor for serving wild animals on plates - his recent words about the vaccine race have gone largely unreported.

If a vaccine was developed after all the shortcuts to accelerate it, would you be among the brave first few to receive an injection of it?

Yuen said he dared not. His answer spoke volumes.

As the race goes on, expediency must not be made the equal of convenience.

So it only frightens listeners every time US President Donald Trump declares how close the US is to developing a vaccine.

And at the World Health Assembly, President Xi Jinping said that - should the research be successful - a vaccine candidate being developed by China would be made available for the "global public good" so that it would be available to all.

Unfortunately, countries still bitter about receiving sub-standard surgical masks and protective gowns from Chinese suppliers after paying them millions of dollars may be forgiven for not showing enough enthusiasm towards Xi's promise as they may be concerned about the safety of a vaccine made in China.

And what of Trump's vacillating vaccine pronouncements? Would you be among the first to line up for a shot of his hurriedly prepared cure?

According to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, there were 115 vaccine candidates at various stages of development as of early April. But only five have pulled ahead of the rest in the race.

One, by Chinese company CanSino, is being trialled in Wuhan, where the virus first erupted. The others are Moderna and Inovio in the US, and Oxford University and Imperial College London in Britain.

CanSino was reported to be entering into its phase two clinical trial, although it has not yet published results of phase one.

Who will cross the finish line first? It's anyone's guess.

But I am certain that, while people should have equal access to a cure, the current race will be followed immediately by another competition as governments scramble to secure a share of the cure.

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