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Is COVID-19 the Next AIDS? Vaccine Development Efforts Suggest a Long Road Ahead
Much has already been written about the COVID-19 pandemic that has spread its tentacles to every part of the globe. While the general public assumes a vaccine to be a magical panacea that will soon rid humanity of this scourge, epidemiologists believe that the answer is not quite so simple. Much like AIDS that ravaged communities in the 1980s but has largely been brought in check now, the WHO states that society cannot wait indefinitely for the COVID-19 vaccine to be developed and must start learning to live with the virus. During instances of a future outbreak, contact tracing and aggressive surveillance measures could well become the new normal. Naturally, this can raise privacy and security concerns, making it all the more imperative for the global vaccine addressable market to fast-track efforts and speed up vaccine research and development.
Slow and Steady Cannot Win the COVID-19 Race – Accelerated Vaccine Development Timescales Must Become Commonplace
Under normal circumstances, a vaccine usually takes approximately 10 years to develop and be certified ‘safe to use’. However, COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated the timescale and the pharmaceutical industry is racing against time to develop an effective vaccine to counter this menacing virus – along with the support of regulatory bodies, not-for-profit organizations, and government agencies. Since the beginning of 2020, more than two dozen companies have declared robust vaccine development programs ploughing their R&D budgets into this monumental effort like never before. Recently, Novamax, an American biotech company, announced that its vaccine candidate had resulted in a promising immune response in lab animal experiments, producing the antibodies needed to eliminate COVID-19. Termed as NVX-CoV2373, the human trials are expected to begin shortly in Australia. While the market-ready vaccine is a year away at the very least, initial results are encouraging indeed. Naturally, the success of one company in the arena would lead to competitors rushing indirectly benefiting the COVID-19 vaccine addressable market.
Academia Spearheading the Global COVID-19 Vaccine Addressable Market
Even before the advent of COVID-19, the global vaccine market was growing in double digits. Post COVID-19, it has received a shot to the arm. The highly contagious nature of COVID-19 and a large number of deaths make it imperative to develop a vaccine as soon as possible. Academic institutions – closed during the lockdowns – have nonetheless led structured R&D initiatives to develop an effective vaccine. The Jenner Institute, operating under the aegis of the University of Oxford, is collaborating with universities spread across Europe and Asia to ramp up production as soon as the vaccine is certified by the concerned authorities. Across the Atlantic, researchers at the University of Waterloo are working on a DNA-based vaccine to prevent COVID-19 infections. This vaccine – unlike others – will be administered nasally and is anticipated to replicate within bacteria already existing inside one’s body as it targets tissue within the nasal and lower respiratory tract. Unfortunately, the effort is unlikely to completely be smooth sailing.
United – We Save Lives. Divided – We All Die
Both public and private enterprises in multiple countries are in a race against time to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, meaning that there may well be conflicts amongst them to secure an adequate supply for their own citizens. It is widely predicted that the initial demand for the vaccine will outstrip supply in the COVID-19 vaccine addressable market. Richer, wealthier countries could potentially attempt to outbid each other to secure their supply, while poorer countries are sent to the back of the queue, waiting until the vaccine is ‘prequalified’ by the WHO. Developing countries also face a far greater population density and host a higher proportion of refugees, meaning that the virus would spread like wildfire, making it very difficult to contain.
Could COVID-19 End Global Supply Chains and Cause Unprecedented Trade Wars?
Another unforeseen consequence is that countries may turn inward, stifling the imperative for global cooperation. Nations have begun to view life-saving drugs from a strategic perspective, and security hawks have begun arguing that there is a need to bring manufacturing in-house, having long-term implications for the global pharmaceutical supply chain market. The European Fine Chemicals Group (EFCG) – an association representing API manufacturers estimates that the vast majority of chemicals used in the drugs sold in Europe originate in China and India. The COVID-19 pandemic is leading to a heightened awareness of this and some American lawmakers are even proposing measures to suppress the purchase of finished foreign drugs within two years.
It is not the Western nations that are considering such measures. In March 2020, India’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry declared that it would restrict the export of key drugs such as acetaminophen and hydroxychloroquine, to prevent local shortages. As the world’s largest producer of hydroxychloroquine, India’s decision created panic in countries that depend on the supply of the drug from the subcontinent. Although quickly rolled back, such measures might well be a harbinger of the times ahead in the post-COVID-19 world. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that it will remain restricted to the global pharmaceutical supply chain alone. The desire to produce drugs locally may well lead to a domino effect in other industries also, causing potential trade and import barriers to arise amongst nations and signaling the end of globalized supply chains as we know them.
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