Race for a Covid-19 vaccine: will emerging economies be left behind?

Health

Economic News

11 Aug 2020
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As various countries contend with a second wave of Covid-19, many emerging markets are pinning their hopes on a vaccine that will allow them to confidently reopen their economies without the fear of health services being overwhelmed. 

With 20m people infected globally and 735,000 virus-related deaths as of August 10, it is becoming increasingly clear that a vaccine is required for societies and economies to return to a sense of normality.

At present, researchers around the world are working on more than 150 different vaccines, with 26 already in the human trial stage.

The issue presents an interesting conundrum for emerging markets, amid concerns that many may miss out on early access to vaccines in favour of wealthier countries.

In late July the US government announced that it had signed a $2bn contract with US multinational Pfizer and German company BioNTech to develop 100m coronavirus vaccines by the end of the year, while in June Germany invested €300m – a 23% stake – in local biopharmaceutical company CureVac, which is working on a Covid-19 vaccine.

China has also invested heavily in a number of domestic companies, with international media reporting that it had spent around $140bn on measures to fight the virus, including the development of treatments and vaccines.

Testing moves forward

Some emerging markets have sought to position themselves favourably for vaccine access by collaborating with international pharmaceutical companies on testing.

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have begun clinical testing for a virus vaccine in cooperation with Chinese companies.

The third-phase testing of the potential vaccine will see around 5000 adults in each country take part in the trial.

In Asia, Indonesian state-owned company Bio Farma has partnered with China’s Sinovac to conduct phase-three vaccine trials in West Java, while local health giant Kalbe Farma is teaming up with South Korea’s Genexine for phase-two testing of the company’s vaccine.

In addition, a national consortium under the Ministry of Research and Technology has begun working on a longer-term, self-sufficient strategy to develop its own vaccine.

"Emergency situations tend to spur innovation. In Indonesia, we have seen many academic bodies and research institutions come up with innovations to boost the national response," Endang Hoyaranda, commissioner at Prodia Group, told OBG. "Efforts are ongoing to find a vaccine, but we have also seen more immediate results in Indonesia in areas like ventilator development and diagnostic testing reagents. Indonesia also has the capacity to develop and test treatments using stem cells.”

Similar efforts towards vaccine self-sufficiency are also under way in Peru and Mexico.

Beyond vaccine diplomacy

The ability of emerging markets to develop working relationships with leading medical research nations is seen as key to gaining access to future vaccines.

For instance, China has indicated that it would give the Philippines priority access to any vaccine that it develops.

The importance of strong ties with wealthier countries comes amid concerns that they may outbid emerging markets once approved solutions enter the market, leaving lower-income nations at the back of the queue.

The World Health Organisation has warned against so-called “vaccine nationalism”, noting that – given the interconnected nature of the world economy – it would be in the general interest to share the benefits of any potential vaccine.

To avoid such a situation, an international coalition of organisations has developed the COVAX Facility, a mechanism designed to provide rapid, fair and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines globally.

The initiative involves high- and middle-income countries financing vaccines through their own public budgets, then teaming up with lower-income nations to provide support in the form of voluntary donations to the COVAX Advance Market Commitment, run by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

So far 75 countries have expressed interest in funding the initiative, which would benefit 90 lower-income nations.

The goal is to deliver 2bn doses of approved vaccines by the end of next year. Under the plans, they would be delivered equally to all participating nations, proportional to their populations, and would initially prioritise health care workers.

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