Coronavirus updates: Vaccine race mired in geopolitics, global death toll crosses 1 million

US, Russia and China are at loggerheads, and this could have serious implications

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A few days back, US President Donald Trump tweeted a link to a news article on a Johnson & Johnson vaccine study; "The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must move quickly," he urged on social media. The incident led to a backlash. "President Trump is still trying to sabotage the work of our scientists and public health experts for his own political ends," tweeted Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state. Trump has been hankering for faster vaccine development, trying to push the rollout to coincide with the US presidential elections set for November; he is trailing substantially behind Democratic Party contender Joe Biden amid widespread criticism of his coronavirus response. Timely vaccine delivery could shift the scales in his favour. The White House had earlier claimed that a COVID-19 vaccine will be ready by the end of the year, the fastest pace for a novel pathogen in history.

Public health professionals in the US reacted. FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn pledged that career scientists, not politicians, will decide whether any coronavirus vaccine meets clearly stated standards that it works and is safe. "Science will guide our decisions. FDA will not permit any pressure from anyone to change that, "Hahn said. "I will put the interest of the American people above anything else."

Even as the global death count from the new coronavirus, according to an AFP tally, passed 1 million on Sunday—with the United States boasting the highest death count of more than 2,00,000 fatalities—the coronavirus vaccine race has taken on distinct political proportions. Nowhere was this more evident than in the recently concluded stormy United Nations General Assembly session. The vaccine race is now practically a proxy fight for dominance between the US, China and Russia. The global dissociation on the issue is clear for all to see—the US, China and Russia have opted out of a collaborative effort to develop and distribute a vaccine, and some rich nations have struck deals with pharmaceutical companies to secure millions of potential doses. 

More than 150 countries have joined COVAX, in which richer countries agree to buy into potential vaccines and help finance access for poorer ones. But the absence of Washington, Beijing and Moscow means the response to a health crisis unlike any other in the UN's 75 years is short of truly being global. Instead, the three powers have made vague pledges of sharing any vaccine they develop, likely after helping their own citizens first.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres even had to chide countries for "side deals" to have vaccines exclusively for their own populations, saying such "vaccinationalism" is "self-defeating". "We are working to advance treatments and therapies as a global public good and backing efforts for a people's vaccine available and affordable everywhere. Yet some countries are reportedly making side deals exclusively for their own populations," Guterres said. "Such 'vaccinationalism' is not only unfair, it is self-defeating. None of us is safe, until all of us are safe. Likewise, economies cannot run with a runaway pandemic."

Mere weeks remain before the deadline for countries to join COVAX, but the most recent UN session devolved into a slugfest between the three superpowers over the pandemic response. 

Who are the latest entrants into the vaccine race?

A handful of vaccines already are in final testing in the US and other countries—the newest late-stage study by Johnson & Johnson aims to enroll 60,000 volunteers, one of the biggest so far, to prove if its single-dose approach is safe and protects against the coronavirus. Other candidates in the US require two shots. Final-stage testing of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine remains on hold in the US, as officials examine a safety question, although studies have resumed in other countries.

J&J's vaccine is made with slightly different technology than others in late-stage testing, modelled on an Ebola vaccine the company created. "Despite the later start than some competitors," Dr Paul Stoffels, J&J's chief scientific officer, told reporters that the study was large enough to yield answers possibly by early next year. 

A Chinese pharmaceutical company on Thursday said the coronavirus vaccine it is developing should be ready by early 2021 for distribution worldwide, including the United States. Yin Weidong, the CEO of SinoVac, vowed to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration to sell CoronaVac in the United States if it passes its third and final round of testing in humans. Yin said he personally has been given the experimental vaccine.

"At the very beginning, our strategy was designed for China and for Wuhan. Soon after that in June and July we adjusted our strategy, that is to face the world," Yin said. "Our goal is to provide the vaccine to the world including the US, EU and others." SinoVac is developing one of China's top four vaccine candidates along with state-owned SinoPharm, which has two in development, and military-affiliated private firm CanSino. More than 24,000 people are currently participating in clinical trials of CoronaVac in Brazil, Turkey, and Indonesia, with additional trials scheduled for Bangladesh and possibly Chile, Yin said. 

While the vaccine has not yet passed the Phase III clinical trials, a globally accepted standard, SinoVac has already injected thousands of people in China under an emergency use provision. China is planning to up the annual production capacity for coronavirus vaccines to 1 billion doses next year.

Slugfest in the United Nations

China, the United States and Russia butted heads at the United Nations General Assembly last week, over responsibility for the pandemic that has interrupted the world, trading allegations about who mishandled and politicised the virus. The remarks at the UN Security Council came two days after Guterres decried the lack of international cooperation in tackling the still out-of-control coronavirus.

The sharp exchanges, at the end of a virtual meeting on 'Post COVID-19 Global Governance', reflected the deep divisions among the three veto-wielding council members that have escalated since the virus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking first, stressed the importance of UN-centred multilateralism and alluded to countries including the US opting out of making a COVID-19 vaccine a global public good available to people everywhere.

"In such a challenging moment, major countries are even more duty-bound to put the future of humankind first, discard Cold War mentality and ideological bias and come together in the spirit of partnership to tide over the difficulties," Wang said. And, in a jab at US and European Union sanctions, including on Russia, Syria and others, he said: "Unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction needs to be opposed in order to safeguard the authority and sanctity of international law."

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the pandemic and its "common misfortune" did not iron out interstate differences, but on the contrary deepened them. "In a whole number of countries, there is a temptation to look abroad for those who are responsible for their own internal problems," he said. "And we see attempts on the part of individual countries to use the current situation in order to move forward their narrow interests of the moment in order to settle the score with the undesirable governments or geopolitical competitors."

United States' UN ambassador, Kelly Craft, opened her remarks late in the meeting with a blunt rejoinder. "Shame on each of you. I am astonished and disgusted by the content of today's discussion," Craft said. She said other representatives were squandering this opportunity for political purposes. "President Trump has made it very clear: We will do whatever is right, even if it is unpopular, because, let me tell you what, this is not a popularity contest," Craft said.

She quoted Trump's speech Tuesday to the virtual opening of the General Assembly's leaders meeting in which he said that to chart a better future, we must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world: China. "The Chinese Communist Party's decision to hide the origins of this virus, minimise its danger, and suppress scientific cooperation [that] transformed a local epidemic into a global pandemic," Craft said. 

-Inputs from agencies

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