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TAF Chair in The Engineer: “Academic community can unite to avoid ‘vaccine nationalism’”

Academia has provided the best chance of finding vaccines in the past. A prize fund could prevent the ugly nationalism that threatens the search for one for Covid-19, says Professor Marja Makarow, Chair of Technology Academy Finland in The Engineer.

Working on a vaccine for coronavirus has become the single most important piece of scientific research in the world with more than 160 teams having projects in train – a figure far in excess of the number that would normally be involved in such research.

But even with this number of teams working on it, discovering a vaccine won’t necessarily be faster than usual.  When scientists find something they think that works, the mantra will be test, test, and test again before they can be sure it is safe and can be scaled up to treat a worldwide market. If any of these tests fail, that research team is often back to square one.  That’s why it will take an estimated 12-18 months to develop a vaccine – and that’s if everything goes to plan.

We increase our chances of success by ensuring the pool is as wide as possible and history tells us that the academic community often provides the best shot.

Firstly, researchers at universities are not restricted by commercial limitations, unlike private pharmaceutical companies.  While at the moment the incentive for pharmaceutical companies seems obvious – whoever finds a vaccine will have a market of billions of people, including a potential bidding war among the world’s richest nations for first access – that economic return may, in fact, be limited.

We don’t understand enough about this virus to know if it may mutate again – as Sars did – possibly making any initial vaccine redundant.  Medicines for long-term chronic conditions will still tend to be prioritised by many commercial companies because these are the most profitable and reliable in the long run. That means at the back of the minds of many companies may be the fear of diverting resources from such activities at a project with a more unreliable outcome or pay-off.

The vaccine developed for Ebola, for example, provides a case in point.  Academics were instrumental in driving the process – no major pharmaceutical company expressed an interest in developing it because there was limited potential in recovering development costs.

While there are several examples of governments providing funding for vaccine research, these are, in the main, going to individual companies or projects based within their own country, rather than funding collaborative, international efforts.

Secondly, while there are several examples of governments providing funding for vaccine research, these are, in the main, going to individual companies or projects based within their own country, rather than funding collaborative, international efforts.  At its most extreme, the race to find a vaccine has also, regrettably, led to ‘vaccine nationalism’ rearing its head – witness President Trump turning his back on a global coalition and instead pursuing a ‘go it alone’ approach with the so-called Operation Warp Speed.  This partisan approach is bad news and threatens equitable access to a vaccine once one is ready.

Some universities have paused on other projects to work on finding a vaccine.  But of the confirmed active vaccine candidates working on a coronavirus vaccine as of last month, only just over a quarter (28%) of projects are being led by academic, public sector and other non-profit organisations.

Despite their expertise, other academic institutions simply cannot afford to allocate, or divert, time and resources to research as funding is often tied up elsewhere.  Universities competing head-to-head can also stifle progress; academia performs best when it collaborates – again, with Ebola for example, collaboration between scientists across three continents was the key factor in a vaccine being developed.  However, academia often lacks the financial clout in order to work together.

To combat these issues, the establishment of a prize fund could be the answer.

To combat these issues, the establishment of a prize fund could be the answer.  It could work in several ways.  As Paul Romer, the US economist and co-winner of the 2018 Nobel in Economic Sciences has argued, offering a £1bn prize to a research group that created a mass test would be far more effective than trying to coordinate research internationally.  Romer cites the Norway-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which has funded nine different projects in the US, UK, France and Australia among others, as an example of this strategy.

Or, as Professor Chris Callaghan of the University of Witwatersrand has proposed, one modelled along the lines of the UK government’s Longitude Prize could be an option.  This would see the World Health Organisation or the United Nations ask countries to commit a significant proportion of their anticipated future costs of the pandemic to incentivise collaboration at an unprecedented scale.

The amount raised in total to date for cross-border initiatives – around $8bn – is less than a third of what is estimated will be needed just to provide the world with vaccines.  Prioritising more funding through a prize fund would have addressed this gap, and would be small beer compared with the long term economic costs of the pandemic.

It might be too late for this novel coronavirus, Covid-19, but there is little doubt that at some point in the future, the world will face another virus for which it risks being ill-prepared.  The number of annual epidemics has risen from fewer than 1,000 in 1980 to more than 3,000 in 2013.  An independent prize fund could protect against vaccine research being swayed by nationalist tendencies or subject to commercial gain, as well as bringing more talented, independent academic teams into the fold.

Professor Marja Makarow is Chair of Technology Academy Finland, which awards the Millennium Technology Prize for groundbreaking innovations supporting sustainable development and increasing peoples’ quality of life.

Partners of the Millennium Technology Prize