While major international pharmaceutical companies from the Western world are fully committed to producing an FDA and EUA-approved vaccine, there are competitors in other parts of the world looking to provide our planet with a vaccine more quickly than initially thought. What does this mean for pharmaceutical like AstraZeneca ($AZN), Moderna ($MRNA) and Pfizer ($PFE) and others, who go through the entire COVID-19 vaccine development?
China and Russia appear to be increasing their lead over Western competition as news has come out once again this weekend that these countries have begun a massive rollout of vaccine candidates. This process is already underway before clinical trials are completed, presenting an unexpectedly complex geopolitical challenge to the United States. Last week, China’s Sinopharm announced that in the upcoming weeks one of the emergency doses of a vaccine candidate will be shipped to the United Arab Emirates. The ally of the United States is not the only country to enter into negotiations with China. As a matter of fact, several countries in the Middle East have signed agreements with Eastern pharmaceutical companies who promise to come up with a vaccine within the coming weeks.
Russia is a major competitor when it comes to the vaccine race, especially after the Russian sovereign wealth fund signed a deal with India last week to supply 100 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine. In addition, officials in Moscow said the first doses of the Sputnik V vaccine have been delivered in all regions of Russia, with health workers and teachers being the first to gain access. Something Russia has been criticized for, as it means that vaccines are used before the clinical phase-3 is completed, which could lead to catastrophic consequences for public health. Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which funded Russia’s vaccine efforts, says the vaccines have been validated by other countries now doing the same. He points to China that will provide the United Arab Emirates with emergency doses of a vaccine candidate and former public statements made by the United States and Britain to potentially register a vaccine candidate before the completion of the clinical phase 3-studies.
Various doctors and experts are shocked and find it incomprehensible how these countries can play with people’s lives by ignoring various medical rules. If a vaccine is not properly tested, it can cause short and long term complications. The doctors claim there is a risk of rare and serious side effects that do not appear in small-scale studies. This is why large-scale phase 3-studies are conducted for months before a vaccine is approved by the FDA. Safety problems can also arise as a result of rushed production. Several American experts now consider that the United States should not come up with vaccines in the field of health care, but is this still realistic to ask?
Economically, it is not possible to stop research and production due to the billions of dollars invested to find a suitable vaccine. The interests are too extensive to pull the plug, take a seat and just watch. Also – politically speaking – this would give China and Russia full control of the diplomatic instrument, which could have an enormous effect on the world economy and global public health. The current result appears that China and Russia will have acquired significant geopolitical power in 2021 by changing the rules and offering the vaccines to the international market, rather than responsibly.
India, Brazil, Mexico and Kazakhstan have now agreed to use Sputnik V vaccines in emergency situations. The same goes for Egypt, Jordan and Beirut and a trial with Sinopharm. Egypt had previously signed an agreement with AstraZeneca stating that the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company will provide 30 million doses of the vaccine after FDA approval. Three days after AstraZeneca announced that the Phase 3-clinical trial was being halted due to a complication with a patient, Egypt also decided to start a partnership with Sinopharm.
Is the interest of the Middle East and other Eastern countries a threat to pharmaceuticals from the Western World? So far this does not seem to be the case, even if China and Russia do a massive rollout of their vaccine candidates in early 2021. Zhou Song, one of the directors of Sinopharm, previously indicated that the company expects an initial production of 300 million doses per year. At two doses per person, that would cover 10 procent of the Chinese population. The Russian Direct Investment Fund said it expects to have produced 30 million doses in Russia by the end of 2020, an equivalent to nearly 20 percent of the population.
With that, a vast majority of the world’s population remains awaiting an approved COVID-19 vaccine, which can be answered by the major Western pharmaceutical companies. Recently, a worldwide survey found that one in three people still has doubts about the production, motives and quality of the vaccine, a percentage that will rise sharply with the introduction of Chinese and Russian vaccines in Western countries. This means that previous criticism from doctors to stop the production and research of American and European vaccin-candidates does not seem relevant. There’s no need to worry about the economic consequences with China and Russia taking an irresponsible shortcut.
AstraZeneca plans to deliver two billion doses worldwide once the vaccine proves successful. Pfizer and BioNTech expect to be ready by October 2020 to receive some form of regulatory approval, which equates to 1.3 billion doses worldwide. Don’t forget, at least 20 other Western pharmaceutical companies are involved in the vaccine race, of which about 10 percent will develop a successful vaccine within the period when demand has yet to be met. The United States expects to receive as many as 300 million doses from its investment program to accelerate a successful vaccine by 2021. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised states to be prepared for the introduction of an approved vaccine by November, 2020.
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