ON the last day of the Republican National Convention, the Trump Administration revealed ambitions to deliver a Coronavirus vaccine by 01 November 2020. The announcement has attracted criticism from Democratic opponents and health experts alike. The former see the move as a political gambit to rally support for the November 3rd election, while the latter has shown apprehension over safety concerns associated with rushing development. However, despite the criticism, Operation Warp Speed is well underway. The race to a vaccine is part of Trump’s larger agenda to “make America great again” and after recordings of him admitting he knew the virus was deadly surfaced, finding a cure to the disease will offer effective course correction. Additionally, harboring beliefs that globalisation has impacted the country negatively, Trump aims to revive nationalist sentiment by making it the production hub of the world. Part of that plan is to have a vaccine ready before China or Russia; the other countries that are working tirelessly to find a cure for the virus. Russia even went as far as approving a vaccine on the 11 August 2020. Whether the incumbent is able to fulfil his promises will be revealed in due course, but what happens if he does?
To begin with, research and development of a vaccine includes taking several crucial steps before it is deemed safe for the general populace. Bypassing these steps may lead to health hazards and side-effects in patients. According to the New York Times, an example of such a “fiasco” was the Swine Flu vaccine of 1976. It led to hundreds of people being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological condition. The immunization programme was rushed despite apprehension from the WHO to help President Ford’s re-election campaign and garner positive Press for elected representatives. Therefore, the mere availability of the vaccine is not enough. It must be safe to use and must lead to little or no side-effects. If the vaccine does meet all health and safety standards, the next challenge will be delivery. Administration of the vaccine to American people, agreement on terms and conditions with friendly countries and building an international supply chain will take time. The more time the process takes, the more likely espionage activities become; something the CIA and the American Justice Department are already tackling. Additionally, countries that have strained relations with the US – like Iran – will have to bear the brunt of this vaccine nationalism while their citizens and the economy suffer due to a disease that might become endemic to their country.
To prevent such a tragedy, multilateral institutions and non-governmental organisations have rallied for a global collective effort to find a cure. The WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom has repeatedly said “our only way out of this pandemic is together.” Hence, in collaboration with the WHO, 172 countries are working in harmony for a common goal. The US is conspicuously absent though, refusing to work with the WHO. The absence of the world’s largest economy means that the initiative might have limited success due to increased polarisation. While investing in several programs is a wise idea to ensure all eggs are not in one basket, the lack of complete global cohesion and politicisation of the issue might delay delivery instead of rushing it. The move is also atypical behaviour from the US, because even during the zenith of the Cold War, Russia and America worked closely with WHO to help eliminate Poliovirus. America has, therefore, always been at the forefront of global eradication initiatives and the recent shift may pose a threat to future collaborative efforts.
Regardless, even if the Republicans are able to deliver on their promise for the 1st of November and global distribution is somehow ensured in a timely manner, there won’t be universal acceptance of the vaccine. Countries with lower literacy rates reject scientific efforts to improve their life. Additionally, extremist elements make the jobs of vaccine workers and medical staff excruciatingly difficult because of excessive violence. They also indulge in sustained misinformation campaigns which prevent people from mass immunisation. Such dire straits are the reason why the global south struggles with eliminating preventable diseases. However, it is not only in developing nations where such propaganda campaigns gain traction. “Plandemic,” a viral video that suggests several conspiracies behind COVID-19, has been doing the rounds on social media recently in the West. Several Americans are also apprehensive of a solution to the disease due to failure of Hydroxychloroquine and Remdesivir, despite sustained support from the government to tout them as short-term fixes. Therefore, finding a cure to the disease is only part of the solution. Fair distribution, acceptance of the vaccine in local populations and strict protocols on propaganda must be addressed simultaneously. A failure to do so will yield undesirable results. However, amidst the undesirability of current circumstances, there is one silver-lining in the fast-task development of a cure. Some programmes associated with research and development of the Coronavirus vaccine have shown immense efficiency due to the simultaneous progression of several steps in some trials. This positive stride may change the way vaccines are made in the future; saving governments, pharmaceutical firms and researchers valuable time. Whether the Trump Administration, COVAX, or China is the first to come up with effective inoculation against the virus remains to be seen. However, planning ahead to decipher potential roadblocks is a critical step that must not be ignored to ensure the race was well worth it.
—The writer is freelance columnist, based in Islamabad.