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Scientists, take a bow.
With the announcement of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, we now have three effective vaccines against the coronavirus with 90% efficacy or above. Even the Oxford vaccine reports 90% efficacy with a particular treatment protocol; more discussion about that and what remains to be understood here. Two of these candidates are built on entirely new vaccine platforms, the mRNA candidate approach, while the AstraZeneca vaccine uses a more established platform, which had yet to have much success in humans. We can expect to hear news from other vaccine candidates like CanSino and Johnson & Johnson soon enough.
Yet, the vector was only sequenced in January, that sequence, of what was then known as 2019-nCov, released to the world on 19 January 2020. It has taken 310 days, 10 months and change, to achieve this.
Remarkable: we’ve got this outcome roughly ten times faster than the usual. Earlier conditions like hepatitis or polio took one to three decades from discovery of the infectious agent to a working vaccine.
The race for a Covid-19 vaccine is proof that we can overcome difficult challenges. EV reader, Geraint Rees, pointed out that it’s “worth recognising that this represents a partnership between large and small pharma, universities and the NHS [Britain’s universal health service] plus the use of advance purchase contracts. A public-private ecosystem we would do well to nurture when tackling complex difficult problems of global significance.”
The vaccine is more than just a little bit of science. It is groundbreaking science and a complex coordination problem. And yes the pandemic has shocked us into delivering against that messy interconnected challenge.
The pandemic, for better or worse, accelerated experimentation in the exponential transition (think lower carbon emissions, more local living, remote collaboration, telehealth, widespread PCR testing, remote deliveries). At a time of rising populism worldwide, rampant conspiracy theories and economic precariousness, the fight against Covid-19 has reminded many of the collective public good and social safety nets. Without substantial government backing, these vaccines wouldn’t have been developed so rapidly. There have been some serious bumps along the way (especially in the United States), but the direction of accomplishment is clear.
And it will be cheap. In the US, the Moderna vaccine will run from $10-50 per dose; Pfizer $20 per dose; and Astra Zeneca $4 per dose. In emerging markets, AZ will ship the vaccines at $3 per dose, assuming 2 doses. The two billion doses the firm plans to make for emerging markets in 2021 will run to about $6bn. This is a pittance in the scale of the global economy. (Or consider that the US government handed the airline industry, a sector chock full of share-buyback addicts like United, $25bn in April this year.)
The power of necessity
What would happen if we harnessed this pandemic mindset and applied it to other less visible pandemic-scale problems on our doorstep?
What of climate change? What of women’s rights? Or global poverty? Or unemployed youth? Or climate-based migration? Or water security? Consider the problem of open defecation, which threatens sanitation levels and causes significant health issues around the world. More than 4bn people around the world--more than the user base of Facebook--do not have access to working, sanitary toilets. Solving this seemingly straightforward challenge requires complex coordination and, you guessed it, urgency.
This isn’t to underplay the fissures that Covid-19 has revealed, far from it. When the dust settles on this virus, and some form of population immunity aided by vaccines takes hold, many countries will need to seriously reflect on the lessons of Covid-19. But we can’t let that reality overshadow the work that’s been achieved in public health by scientists, governments and health services courtesy of a cocktail of coordination, cooperation and healthy competition.
That old catchphrase, “another world is possible” seems strangely apt here. At the beginning of 2020, who would have thought we could achieve medical breakthroughs such as the development of these vaccines as quickly or as cheaply as we have.
Looking at the planet-wide pandemic-scale problems that define our future, what will we gain if we embrace the urgency, creativity, constructive competition and collaboration of the pandemic mindset?
The following podcasts explore the opportunity in synthetic biology:
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