Covid-19 vaccines in record-breaking times have raised millions of people’s hopes that life will return to normal next year. But speed has also made many worry that corners are being cut in the race to get the virus – and the economy – under control.
It’s certainly incredible that several vaccines are almost ready for use in under a year. It normally takes ten years to reach this stage!
But the question should be, ‘why does vaccine development usually take so long?’
Partly this speed is due to powerful computers shortening development stages and data analysis. But much time is normally spent raising finance for each stage of research. Neither pharmaceutical companies nor governments are willing to commit money upfront when there’s no guarantee of success. ‘Success’ for companies means profits.
$13 billion of public money has gone to just six of the 58 Covid-19 vaccines now being clinically trialled. An army of scientists, doctors, engineers and laboratories in universities and industry around the world has been mobilised for Covid-19 vaccine research.
Why haven’t similar efforts already conquered malaria, TB and other infectious diseases that kill millions each year? These mostly occur in the poorest parts of the world. There is no scope for big profits. That’s why the pharmaceutical industry neglected vaccine research for decades.
Three Covid-19 vaccines have now been tested in stage three trials. About 45,000 people have received one of them. Common unwanted effects would show up by now. Rare complications might still be identified but, as the numbers in hospital and the number of people dying from coronavirus show, the current risk of serious illness or death from Covid-19 is much higher.
If any vaccine is later shown to be linked to a rare unwanted outcome, anyone affected should be fully compensated for loss of pay, extra care and other losses. This should be for as long as needed, without long legal battles.
There are still unanswered questions. Are the vaccines effective in young children? Does Oxford/Astra Zeneca’s vaccine produce 90% success if half the dose is used first – as was done in a group of under 55-year olds – or nearer 62% – if that group was discounted?
Vaccine study designs and results should be fully open to expert inspection from the trade union movement. There should be no commercial confidentiality. It’s public money that has funded most of the research.
It’s significant that after the testing fiasco even this vehemently pro-market Tory government has not trusted the private sector with the vaccination programme, drafting in the armed forces to support the NHS rather than giving the contract to Deloitte and other private companies.
But while people are desperate to restart ‘normal’ life – meeting family, socialising with friends, going to a football match, pub or cinema – vaccines won’t repair the terrible damage from years of austerity and a new economic downturn.
As the immediate threat of infection starts to fall in coming months, trade unions, students and the unemployed must organise to fight job losses, attacks on working conditions, and austerity, and defeat the ‘virus’ of capitalism.
Priority for the first batches of Covid-19 vaccines must go to those with the greatest need – the elderly, clinically extremely vulnerable and the health and care staff in close contact with them. Pfizer BioNTech’s vaccine has to be stored at -70C. It is difficult to deliver outside hospital or large vaccination centres, but these are difficult or impossible for many of those in need to get to.
Urgent recruitment of vaccinators, drivers, carers and administrators could provide a mobile service to care homes, local centres and homes of the housebound. They would take just a few vaccines at a time on each trip.
Healthcare workers who have left the NHS because of impossible workloads and low pay, and tens of thousands of workers who have lost their jobs, could be recruited. They should be paid at least £15 an hour, not the £11.20 now offered to those signing up to work in vaccination centres.
Manufacturing billions of doses of the vaccines is a mammoth task. Already there are signs of the difficulties involved. On 3 December, the Wall Street Journal claimed Pfizer/BioNTech suddenly scaled back distribution targets for their vaccine this month. They intended to make 100 million doses but now say it will be 50 million.
A Pfizer spokesman said the “scale-up of the raw material supply chain took longer than expected.”
This refers to the tiny oily droplets that transport the active ingredients into the body’s cells. These ‘lipid nanoparticles’ are a highly specialised ingredient, with suppliers previously geared to much smaller output than is now required.
Pfizer/BioNTech buys these from the Canadian company Acuitas, which only recently appeared to have just 40 employees and annual revenue of $6.3 million.
In 2017, Acuitas was in a legal battle with another company, Arbutus, over intellectual property rights. Arbutus has also been in dispute with Moderna this year (see ‘Covid, vaccines, big pharma and the need for socialism’ at socialistparty.org.uk). A 2017 investor report wrote that Arbutus had “made a strategic decision to move fully into Hepatitis B vaccine … the move was predominantly because their financial backers wanted them to be focused in one area.”
The German company CureVac’s vaccine is also supplied by Acuitas. It is now undergoing advanced phase two trials and could come on stream in the next few months.
Democratic socialist planning is urgently needed, with scientists, technologists and workers’ organisations co-operating together instead of decisions taken by and in the interests of “financial backers”. That means bringing all the big pharmaceutical corporations into public ownership, only compensating shareholders in genuine need.