The Vaccine Conundrum

covid vaccine

“We hope to have a vaccine ready for testing in about two years” was a bold, hopeful and overoptimistic statement made in April 1984 by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler about an HIV vaccine, based on a conversation she had with the virus’s co-discoverer, Robert Gallo. After three and a half decades of incessant struggle by scientific community, we are still at the same place with no licensed HIV vaccine against the disease. The failure of HIV vaccine development have been attributed to factors that involve complexity of HIV infection like lack of natural immunity, continuous mutations and variations in virus and lack of animal models that can predict actual behaviour of virus in humans. Recently, a 100 million dollar HIV vaccine project also failed to develop an efficacious and reliable vaccine to eradicate the disease. The project was headed by infectious disease specialist Glenda Gray who has spent almost ten years in bringing this new HIV vaccine, HVTN 702, to phase III clinical trial. The failure to develop an effective and affordable vaccine against HIV should not be blamed on technical complexities but the derailment is more of political and economic quaking, corporate profits and dwindled public investments.

The corporate monopolies to prefer the development of pills to treat the virus with the idea of getting more consumer charges due to continuous use rather than on development of viable vaccine for one time use has also failed the process of usable vaccine production. The case of vaccine development for malaria is similar where today we have vaccine with at most 30% of clinical efficacy. As a result the technology of vaccine development is not only becoming difficult but it has been continuously seen to serve the commercial interests of private corporations. From 1960s, there has been a tremendous pressure on public funded medical researchers to demonstrate the public benefits of their work. However, at the same time the very idea of this public benefit was continuously interlocked with appropriation and commercial exploitation of intellectual property, particularly in pharma industry. With the advent of biotechnology sector as entrepreneurial intermediary between academic bioscience and the pharmaceutical industry, the pharmaceutical commercialization as a surrogate for public benefit began to attain more publicity. Moreover, with relaxations in the patent laws during the same time and the introduction of intellectual property helped distillate more commercial values from scientific research. It is this paradigm in the history of integration of biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry for the purpose of monopolizing the medical market that has reduced the investments in developing vaccines which are less profitable, and more investments in producing pills with substantial profits.

Moreover, the infections have been continuously declared more deadly to increase the public use of less effective and more lethal new vaccines. The vaccine for Hepatitis B, the first recombinant vaccine developed by recombinant DNA technology, clearly shows how plasma vaccine was easily replaced by recombinant vaccine considering the higher profitability and greater commercial success of newly developed recombinant vaccine. Murray, the inventor of this vaccine, has clearly stated in his original patent that “the use of human sources for these antigens is disfavoured because of the well-recognized contamination problems in using human isolates”. The public narrative about the risks posed by hepatitis B infection created during this time also boosted the commercial success of this vaccine. All these historical events in vaccine development demonstrates that how world has prioritized the corporate interests over public health care and increased the vulnerability of emergence of pandemics.

The global fight towards the riddance of covid pandemics shows how capitalist mode of production and capitalist economy has undermined the risk of emergence of epidemics and pandemics by preferring profit over public benefit when they knew it was never a matter of “if” but a matter of “when”. When US president Trump announced “Operation Warp Speed”, a public private partnership based collaborative funding operation between government and pharmaceutical firms to generate and distribute an efficacious and viable covid-19 vaccine by the end of 2020, it again sounded a never fulfilling overambitious promise.

The race for development and manufacturing of a viable vaccine for covid seems to be extensive where proclamation across the globe by many countries is highly competitive. However, we should not lack the foresight of such overambitious claims as we have ossified the corporate monopoly in medical market to such an extent that it is highly predictive how ineffective it will be in making the vaccine easily accessible to a large number of vulnerable communities. In addition, the barriers in vaccine technology transfer to low and middle income countries by more strict intellectual property regulations from last three decades not only limits the global distribution of vaccine but also favours the commercial interests of private corporations. In developing an effective vaccine for covid, there are scientific, regulatory and political challenges to be taken into account. Although the genomic studies have shown above 80% similarity between 2019-novel corona virus (2019-nCoV) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, it is still a stranger to our immune system. There needs to be a proper and exhaustive scientific understanding on how our immune system reacts and gets rid of this novel virus before rational design of covid vaccine. The RNA genome of 2019-nCoV is reported to be very stable when compared to common flu that gives a scientific advantage of less frequent variations in its progeny, this, however, doesn’t mean it is devoid of antigenic shift or antigenic drift. By analysing the spreading ability of this novel virus, it is highly predisposed to antigenic drift and can accumulate large number of minor mutations that might emerge as a new mutant.

This demands extensive preclinical studies including studies on safety of vaccine, which most of the current covid vaccine developers are ignoring owing to large scale spread of infection across the globe and immediate need for vaccine for developing herd immunity. The regulatory barriers including licensing of new vaccine, approval for large scale production and manufacturing and global distribution shall also delays the development of a safe and effective covid vaccine. The market value of vaccine shall be in high income countries due to their easy buying power when the need is high in low income countries due to their higher propensity towards developing severe covid owing to larger population with compromised immune system. The role of government policies is crucial towards the developing covid vaccine by prioritizing public health over the corporate interests. The pharmaceutical firms need to be regulated by amendments in the Intellectual property rights to dwindle the corporate monopoly and proper pubic private partnership with regulatory measures to prefer health over profit in order to develop a viable, effective and safe covid vaccine at the earliest.


Bio: I am Sheikh Irfan, PhD student in department of biological sciences and bioengineering, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur and I am from Kupwara, Kashmir.  Email id: [email protected]



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