Procuring vaccines- Rafia Zakaria


ADAR Poonawalla and his father Cyrus Poonawalla are betting big on vaccines. Even before the vaccine being developed by researchers at Oxford University has passed stage-three trials, they have begun producing it on a very large scale. The idea is that if the vaccine is proven to work, the Poonawallas will already have a huge supply of it to sell to the world.

The Poonawallas, who are billionaires with their holdings valued by Forbes at $11.8 billion, are no strangers to betting. The father and grandfather of the current scion both liked to raise racehorses. Grandfather Cyrus Poonawalla bought the property where horses could be raised. When Adar’s father, also named Cyrus, took over in the 1960s, he also gained unwitting insight into the vaccine trade.

At the time, they allowed vaccine manufacturers in India (a country that needed a large volume of cheaply produced vaccines for its burgeoning population) to inject horses with small doses of the virus. The horses’ antibody-rich blood was then harvested and used to manufacture vaccines for humans. It did not take long for Cyrus to push out the middleman and decide to manufacture the vaccine himself. He founded the Serum Institute of India and never looked back.

The Serum Institute as it exists today is the largest single vaccine manufacturer in the world. Its recipe for dominating the vaccine market has been its ability to manage costs while still producing a high-quality vaccine. According to The New York Times, which ran a hagiographic article on Adar Poonawalla recently, half the world’s children have been vaccinated using vaccines that originated at the Serum Institute. The assembly lines at the institute are so large that it is claimed they can produce 500 doses of the Oxford vaccine every minute. This makes it a place that could — if the Oxford vaccine works — save the world.

If the Oxford vaccine is shown to work, he will have a stockpile ready to go on day one. At the moment, he has promised that he will try to save India’s 1.3 billion people first; he says he will divide the doses, giving 50 per cent to India and the rest to other countries.

Currently, the US and European countries have struck bargains with many vaccine developers and major drug companies such that they will be able to produce the working vaccines fast and for their populations first. It has been observed that without the institute’s gamble, countries like India and Brazil, both struck very hard by the coron avirus, would have little chance of getting vaccines for their population. It is no surprise then, that Prime Minister Modi outlawed the export of drugs and other materials at the beginning of the pandemic.

Pakistani policymakers and leaders should also consider how they can obtain a vaccine once a successful candidate has been found. As the Wall Street Journal noted this week, Pakistan has been a “bright spot” in the coronavirus story. The reason (according to the WSJ) is mainly demographics; the country has a young population with median age being just 22. Add to this its social mores, the fact that a large section of the women rarely leave their homes, and the fact that there is only one megacity in the country, and you have risk factors fall drastically.

Moreover, Karachi is more a sprawling place rather than a vertical, high-rise city. This means that, compared to some other international cities, the number of dense pockets may be fewer. (Add to this the general decrepitude, the fact that there is no working public transportation system and everyone is usually suspicious of everyone else even when there is no global pandemic, and you become a ‘bright spot’ for the world.)

The people silently suffering in Karachi are unlikely to be cheered by this quaint compliment offered by the WSJ, and the Pakistan government should not be either. The matter of obtaining a vaccine is crucial to the health of millions of Pakistanis, many of whom have pre-existing conditions or are older than 65. Without a plan as to how a successful vaccine can be procured, they will be left vulnerable. They may not die all at once to grab the world’s headlines, but matters could turn worse if they do not get a vaccine.

Given this situation, Pakistan should immediately begin talks with its allies to see how it may create pathways via which it can obtain the vaccine. Pakistan’s close ties with China, that also has several vaccines in development (but that is being more secretive about its plans and the success of its various trials) is one way. One hopes that Pakistan, which has received help from the Chinese in their efforts to manage the pandemic, is also in talks with them over whether it can get doses of the successful vaccine candidate.

Just like the whole world was fighting over buying personal protective gear earlier this year, the whole world will be fighting over everything that is required to make a vaccine, and China will likely be the only place that can supply it.

It is a tragedy that India is so whetted by nationalist and Islamophobic forces that, if it is in a position to procure the virus, it may not supply the vaccine to countries it sees as rivals. This, however, is the world during the coronavirus pandemic — and likely after the coronavirus pandemic, people will look out for their own and the countries that do not make plans will continue to let their people suffer. Let’s hope the pandemic-ridden world is spared this kind of tragedy.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.