Vaxing nine to five
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - November 21, 2020 - 12:00am

I’ve always been a fan of country and western legend Dolly Parton, but I would never have imagined that she would come up in connection with a medical breakthrough, let alone one as significant as a vaccine against COVID-19.

Coming of age in the 80s, I first came across Ms. Parton as a co-star with two other powerhouse female actors: Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in the movie “Nine to Five.” My only issue with her is that she penned “I Will Always Love You,” which became a mega-hit for fellow diva, the late Whitney Houston, while I was living in Manila. You may remember how the FM stations could not get enough of it, they played it all the time. All. The. Time.

Anyway, it turns out that in April, Parton donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University Medical Center after her longtime friend Dr. Naji Abumrad informed her that they were making some exciting advancements towards research of the coronavirus for a cure. It helped pay for the first part of research into the vaccine that Vanderbilt developed with drugmaker Moderna. The company announced on Monday that early trials of the vaccine showed a 94.5 percent effectiveness rate.

Eventually, the US federal government invested $1 billion in the creation and testing of the vaccine, but the lead researcher said the Dolly Parton COVID-19 Research Fund paid for the critical early stages of research.

“I’m a very proud girl today to know I had anything at all to do with something that’s going to help us through this crazy pandemic,” Parton said when she appeared on UK television this week, looking as glamorous as ever.

The Moderna announcement was one of several positive developments into possible COVID-19 vaccines. Pfizer announced the results from the first completed phase 3 trials. That’s a major milestone because it means the vaccine is given to thousands of people and tested for efficacy and safety and it’s the fastest ever vaccine development.

Here in the UK, the government has pinned its hopes on a vaccine being developed at the University of Oxford, to be manufactured by AstraZeneca. It’s ordered 100 million doses of it, compared to 40 million from Pfizer and five million from Moderna. The Oxford vaccine is raising hopes it can protect the age group most at risk from the virus because it’s shown a strong immune response in adults in their 60s and 70s. The study lead, Professor Andrew Pollard, said he’s “absolutely delighted with the results,” though he said the data wasn’t there yet when he was asked if the vaccine protects people agains the coronavirus.

Although the news has been encouraging this week, public health experts are warning this is no time for people to lower their guard against the disease. Here in Europe and the US, infection and death rates have recently spiked to levels not seen since the spring. Winter is expected to be very difficult and vaccines aren’t likely to become widely available till next year.

“I think it’s at least four to six months before we have significant levels of vaccination going on anywhere,” said Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program. Even then, there will need to be a lot of serious work to coordinate and provide the infrastructure necessary for global distribution. Each immunization is expected to take two doses and will need to be transported and stored at cold temperatures.

The Philippines is in competition with the rest of the world to try to provide vaccines for its people; richer countries are far ahead in securing the necessary deals. The government has announced it plans to reduce the approval time for coronavirus vaccines already approved by other countries. The private sector has pledged to buy a million doses and the government has now agreed to pay drug-makers in advance.

There are some deals in place to benefit poorer countries. More than 180 countries have signed on to the Covax Facility, a scheme that aims to equitably distribute two billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021. Their hope and attempt will be to try to have vaccines available at more or less the same time in developed and developing countries.

So how much will the vaccine cost, who will pay and who will decide who gets it? At the World Trade Organization, developing countries, led by India and South Africa, have proposed that the patent protections of the vaccines be waived. They argued “this would avoid barriers to the timely access to affordable medical products including vaccines and medicines or to scaling-up of research, development, manufacturing and supply of essential medical products.” If granted, anyone would be able to mass produce treatments and inoculations against the disease without fear of being sued or prosecuted. Campaigners say this could significantly shorten the duration of the pandemic. They also point out that the big pharmaceutical companies have received unprecedented funding from taxpayers, but the companies will retain control over who will receive the vaccine, when they will receive it, how many doses they will get and for how much they will get it.

The UK, USA, Canada, Australia and the European Union, who’ve reserved billions of doses of potential vaccines through bilateral deals, are opposing the proposal. They and others argue there is no indication that intellectual property rights have been a genuine barrier to accessing COVID-19 related medicines and technologies. They “observed that non-efficient and underfunded health care and procurement systems, spiking demand and lack of manufacturing capacity are much more likely to impede access to these materials.”

In other words, they’re saying big pharma companies shouldn’t have to forego their profit, after all poor countries’ badly-run health care systems, large numbers of sick people and underdevelopment are the real reason their people won’t get the vaccines they need.

I wonder what Dolly Parton thinks.

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