Science, Profits and Vaccines

Bharat Dogra

Vaccines have been a very important part of the public health effort all over the world. However, in recent times some important changes took place in the way vaccine development, production and distribution is organized at world level. Vaccines became a high profit industry of billions of dollars dominated by some very resourceful multinational companies with an almost global reach. In this situation the actual decision-making starting drifting away frequently from science and welfare based decision making.

Science and welfare based decision making requires that only those vaccines are taken up whose need, efficacy and safety are well-established as per carefully laid down criteria. There cannot be a vaccine for all the innumerable diseases, of course. It has to be scientifically determined which vaccine is likely to be useful. Once the need for a vaccine is clearly established then its efficacy and safety have to be established. For this certain procedure, protocols and time-lines are needed and these should be followed. The normal time has been generally found to be about a decade. Questions regarding more than one way of developing a vaccine need to be resolved. Once safety and efficacy are well-established, then comes the stage of distribution in a just manner so that a proven safe product needed for protection from a serious and dangerous disease can be accessible to all those who need it regardless of their income levels.

But almost all these considerations have been violated in recent times when the domination of some big companies as well as billionaires and international organizations working with them have led to repeated assaults on decision making based on science and welfare. Under these highly distorted conditions several products which inflated profits of these companies and increased costs for developing countries were sold to them (the bitter pill of high costs for products of dubious merit being sweetened by temporary so-called subsidies or concessions, that too often to the accompaniment of undue influence of donors on health sector). What is worse, safety aspects did not get due attention in the hurry to push sales and profits, leading to some very tragic and sad situations. Hundreds have died, several hundred thousand have suffered.

All these considerations need to be kept firmly in mind while examining the desperate race for finding a vaccine for COVID-19. Not just leading companies, but also governments including military forces of leading dominant countries have become closely involved in this race. Billions of dollars have been invested and highly ambitious time-bound production targets have been talked about without any COVID-19 vaccine being approved and cleared by regulation authorities yet. The average time of ten years for developing a vaccine is being reduced to ten months or perhaps even less, to be followed immediately by the largest ever scale of production and distribution of any vaccine!

Where is science in all this? How are all the necessary procedures and protocols followed when time is squeezed from 10 years to 10 months? Several senior scientists have raised serious questions and criticisms, but their sane words are drowned in the mad rush and its day to day celebration in the media. Dr. Sucharit Bhakdi, one of the most cited scientists and Professor Emeritus, Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, has said that some vaccines are sensible and some are senseless, the current race described above belonging to the senseless category!

In the interests of science and in the interests of welfare of humanity, some senior independent scientists should come together to issue a common statement on what has been happening recently in the name of COVID-19 vaccine, and more generally on recent trends in the vaccine sector and the urgent reforms that are needed.

The writer is Convener of Save the Earth Now Campaign and its SED Demand (demand for declaring the next decade as save the earth decade). His recent books on this subject include Protecting Earth for Children and Earth Without Borders.

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Jun 14, 2020

Bharat Dogra

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