By Mark Suzman
This week, we learned that the COVID-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca appears to provide no measurable effect on mild or moderate disease caused by the variant of the virus first identified in South Africa, known as B.1.351.
This is deeply disappointing news. People the world over are understandably frustrated and anxious as the pandemic continues to disrupt their lives. In South Africa, where many of my family members live, and in other countries where variants are spreading, people have been waiting for the promising science to translate into lives saved in their communities.
The whole world is grappling with a complicated and fluid situation. We still don’t know, for example, if this vaccine could protect against severe or fatal disease caused by the variant, thereby preventing people from being hospitalized or needing supplemental oxygen, which is in short supply in some countries. Additional information will be needed to answer these and other questions. The World Health Organization and national health authorities will determine the potential public health value of this vaccine in South Africa and other countries and make decisions about where and how it can be used.
While we may all be feeling destabilized now amid this swirl of questions, we must keep the big picture in mind. In science, every outcome is knowledge. Without the researchers in South Africa who were able to quickly identify the variant and incorporate it into this clinical trial, the world would not yet know the effectiveness of the vaccine on this variant. These world-class scientists have generated valuable new knowledge that will enable more targeted interventions, helping governments make important decisions about vaccine rollouts and better protect their people. For example, a version of this vaccine is being rolled out in India, where B.1.351 hasn’t yet been detected. So while questions are being answered, this vaccine will continue to be a valuable tool in other parts of the world.
We’ve all been spoiled lately by how good the news on vaccine science has been. The world went from seeing the emergence of a deadly new infectious disease to developing several safe and effective vaccines against it within the space of only 10 months—the fastest humans have ever gone from identifying a novel virus to inoculating against it. Only four months ago, we weren’t sure any vaccine would work. With several additional vaccines coming through the final phases of clinical trials, including those from Johnson & Johnson and Novavax, we are still on a trajectory to get everyone protected against COVID-19. It will take time for doses of those vaccines to become available, following regulatory approvals and manufacturing scale-up, but they will get out.
As a philanthropy, we will continue to do our part to keep up the momentum. Building on our longstanding partnerships, we are working with governments, multilateral organizations, and private companies to determine how to respond to the latest data. We will use our funding commitments of more than $1.75 billion to help accelerate the development and distribution of vaccines that are optimized for lower- and middle-income countries and are effective against the variants. We’ll also make new investments in treatments and diagnostics because we’ve learned that research and development on these important tools must accelerate as additional variants emerge.
Although the path forward is challenging, it is not bleak. We have learned a great deal about what works to control this virus during 2020, and these lessons are increasingly being applied for an even more nimble and effective response in 2021.
A pandemic knows no borders. Leaving half the world without access to vaccines only means that more people will suffer and die, both at home and abroad. As Bill and Melinda recently wrote in their annual letter, we are fighting against immunity inequality, an injustice that is bad on moral grounds, bad on economic grounds, and bad on public health grounds. The world needs to reach vulnerable communities and health care workers with vaccines as quickly as possible, no matter where they live, if we’re going to get ahead of this virus.
To combat a global problem, global action is needed. Many nations and organizations have worked to create, fund, and promote collaborative international mechanisms to boost equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. COVAX remains far and away the biggest and most important multilateral initiative to tackle this challenge, but only if it urgently receives funding to support enough vaccines to outrace the virus. Unfortunately, global manufacturing and procurement have remained underfunded while a bidding war for doses puts vaccines out of reach for the poorest countries. Nations that understandably want to shore up their own health networks and vaccine delivery systems should also ramp up funding for COVAX and reject the impulse to make bilateral deals that shut out other countries and delay the possibility of a global recovery.
If COVID-19 has taught the world anything over the past year, it is that we’re all in this together. Variants may continue to emerge that could put everyone at risk. We cannot defeat this pandemic unless everyone, everywhere, has a chance to get vaccinated.
Mark Suzman is the chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation