Unless a COVID-19 vaccine is available at low price, billions may not access it
Russia’s claim that it could become the first country to develop a COVID-19 vaccine might be taken with a pinch of salt by other countries, such as the US and UK that have alleged that Russia was backing hackers to try and steal the research data from other countries. That makes the Russian vaccine seem doubtful in terms of its originality and efficacy. However, it would be wrong to dismiss the Russian claim outright, for after all the country is going to first inject the vaccine it develops into the bodies of Russians, and President Vladimir Putin and Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology at Moscow, which is developing the vaccine, would not stick their necks out by giving their own people a non-efficacious or unsafe vaccine. Merely because Russia has claimed it was going to register its COVID-19 vaccine by August 12 should not make its vaccine candidate untrustworthy.
There are two reasons why we must not dismiss Russia’s efforts. One, Russia’s defence ministry has in an official statement affirmed that tests of the vaccine were being conducted in full compliance with methodological regulations. The ministry said it has been conducting tests of the vaccine ‘on volunteers in full compliance with the acting legislation and scientific methodological regulations, in order to prevent further risks, without any attempt to reduce the duration of the research.’ Two, R-Pharm, a Russian drugmaker, has signed a deal with AstraZeneca to manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Oxford University. Had Russia been relying on hackers to steal vaccine data from other countries, a Russian drugmaker would not have signed a contract with AstraZeneca.
COVID-19 vaccine candidates have to pass through a three-phase trial before they can be approved for use and production. So there is still time before the vaccine being developed by Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology at Moscow can be ready for use. Its phase 1 human trials were completed in the second week of July. It is likely to receive a ‘conditional registration’ by August 12, which means the vaccine would be approved for use even though its phase 3 human trials would be carried out simultaneously. The Moscow vaccine would be administered only to health professionals initially. If everything goes well, its production might start in September. But other countries are also working at full speed on COVID-19 vaccine candidates. According to authentic reports, about 160 COVID-19 vaccine candidates are at different stages of development in various countries of the world including India. Out of them, 27 vaccines are undergoing human trials. Till Russia put in its claim, the vaccine candidate being developed by Oxford University in collaboration with the British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca was being looked upon by the world as the leading candidate to emerge for the earliest use. The phase 1 and phase 2 trials of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine candidate are over and have shown positive results. Currently phase 3 trials are going on. In the US too, the vaccine candidate is undergoing phase 3 trials.
In India an indigenous COVID-19 vaccine candidate Covaxin is being tried. Its phase 1 human trials have begun, with one of the trial centres in Goa. The Serum Institute of India (SII), Pune has signed a deal with AstraZeneca to mass-produce the vaccine called Covishield it is developing in collaboration with Oxford University. The SII is expected to conduct phase 2 and phase 3 trials for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in India in accordance with the protocol approved by the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation. Cyrus Poonawalla, the founder chairman of SII recently expressed hope that his institute would be able to develop a vaccine by December.
The entire world is waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine, it is so sick of being cornered and besieged by the coronavirus. However, as all of us wait for a vaccine, the question of its pricing and availability remains. According to one report, the Moderna vaccine of the US is expected to cost Rs Rs 1,800 to Rs 2,300 per dose. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine price would be around Rs 1,000. Unless vaccines are mass-produced and available at low prices, billions of people might have to wait longer to get one.