ANDREW DAVIS: Vaccine development: the real heroes?

No one wanted to believe it. However, it happened, and it must be said that the timely development of the COVID-19 vaccine was a great achievement. A sudden glimmer of optimism appeared as vaccines were developed in record time by Phizer-Biontech, Moderna, and Oxford-AstraZeneca.

ANDREW DAVIS: Vaccine development: the real heroes?
The early development of the COVID-19 vaccine was a major achievement. Image by Spencer Davis from Pixabay

Post mid-election blues in Mexico: the beginnings of a third pandemic wave, citizens sceptical about wanting to get inoculated, government slow to import vaccines, empty inoculation stations…the list goes on. Flashback to the end of 2020…breaking world news: vaccines developed in record time by Phizer-Biontech, Moderna, and Oxford-AstraZeneca; a sudden flash of optimism!

I was discussing the good news with students as the news came out to cheer them up at the end of a particularly difficult year. It was almost surreal that a solution to a global pandemic that had ground the entire world to a halt, had been developed so quickly and apparently appeared out of nowhere. Nobody wanted to believe it. Yet it happened, and it needs to be said that timely COVID-19 vaccine development was a great achievement.

The private pharmaceutical industry has led the way. These have been the real heroes of the global pandemic, proving that efficient research and development following market forces is the most productive. This sudden surge in activity was due to the ready availability of testing volunteers during a pandemic, open inter-company collaboration during times of crises, generous funding by governments, a fast-track approval processes by regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration & the World Administration, and intensive scientific research. Even such obstinate political leaders as Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador have publicly said so.

Governments have joined the bandwagon, illustrated by proposed Mexican public projects in vaccine development. Claims by various administrations to buy out private pharmaceutical companies, set up joint research & development ventures, bottling facilities, licensing agreements, even starting vaccine projects of their own, all have varying credibility. They all show, however, that the constraints of red tape should restrict governments to a secondary role in vaccine development. Private industry has the advantage of greater flexibility, more experience, an understanding of market needs, and established cluster development which has allowed it to work in conjunction with authorities and research institutions alike.

Now the example has been set by private industry, however, governmental and society are letting the side down. Despite the inevitable bottleneck of initial production & the me-first mentality of developed economies, authorities are holding up the agile establishment of production facilities closer to emerging markets, purchasing arrangements of vaccines by emerging economies are coming to nothing, and society has been slow to accept vaccines at all. As a case in point, the Mexican government is continuing its policy of inaction to control the COVID-19 virus as the pandemic heads into its third wave; some would even say that authorities have been pushing for even laxer measures such as completely easing restrictions for facilitating voting and opening schools for political means.

As a further insult to injury, public administrators are prone to distract themselves with matters pertaining to political ideology, rather than solving tangible issues. Policies such as centralized purchases of medicines to avoid intermediaries, and building hospitals with federal rather than state funds are purposefully designed to go against the grain of previous tendencies, rather than a means to solve a practical problem. This was illustrated recently by the declaration of Mexican Health Ministry public servant Hugo Gatell, warning of a possible coup d’état being behind desperate cries for cancer treatment from the parents of critically ill patients. This sort of politicizing is always a danger when leaving such ethical issues as life-saving medicines in the hands of the public sector.

Author: Andrew Davis is a full-time professor and consultant at the International Business and Logistics Faculty at the Tec de Monterrey University in Santa Fe, Mexico City.