Global Scenario

COVID-19 vaccine still elusive even as September reports over 300,000 cases daily

Print edition : October 09, 2020

A street in Havana, capital of Cuba, on September 14. Cuba is among the few countries that has managed to control the spread of the coronavirus.. Photo: Yamil LAGE / AFP

Students in a classroom in Islamabad, Pakistan on September 15. Educational institutions reopened in mid September in Pakistan following a steady decline in COVID-19 deaths and infections. Photo: Anjum Naveed/AP

A shot of Sputnik V, Russia’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine, being administered to a volunteer in Moscow, on September 15. Photo: AP/PTI

Even as the world waits for a COVID-19 vaccine, and governments continue to combat the pandemic with varying degrees of success, it is projected that globally, over 300 million people will soon be infected by the virus.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported in mid September that COVID-19 infection rates continue to show a relentless upward trend in most parts of the world. By the third week of September, more than 3,00,000 cases of infection were being reported every day, with India leading the charts. United States and Brazil continue to be the other epicentres of the pandemic. The projections are that more than 300 million people around the world are going to be affected by the pandemic in a very short time; Indian cases crossed the five million mark in mid September. The death toll resulting from the virus in the U.S. is poised to cross the 2,00,000 mark before the end of September.

The world is desperately waiting for a vaccine to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus. Only U.S. President Donald Trump seems to be confident that a vaccine will be freely available at least in America before the Presidential election in November. Trump has also claimed he has dealt with the pandemic effectively although the United States accounts for 25 per cent of the deaths worldwide. He boasted in the second week of September that his efforts in tackling the pandemic have been appreciated by none other than the Prime Minister of the world’s biggest democracy, Narendra Modi. Another fan of Trump is the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro. All three are the leaders of countries which have been most affected by the pandemic and have been accused of grossly mismanaging the situation.

COVID-19 vaccines

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been insisting that the vaccine “Sputnik V” already approved by the Russian government, has proven to be effective. He also said that one of his daughters has been vaccinated. However, Western governments and the media are sceptical of the efficacy of the Russian vaccine. The criticism is that the Russian government has given the certificate of registration before completing the Phase 3 human trials. Moscow has requested Delhi to help in the Phase 3 trials and identify an appropriate vaccine producer in the country to produce the Sputnik V in bulk quantities. The Indian side has moved fast. In the third week of September, Dr Reddy Labs, a leading Indian pharmaceutical company, signed an agreement with the Russian government for the production of the vaccine in India.

China has been supplying masks and ventilators to developing countries since the onset of the pandemic. According to reports, China is on the verge of producing a vaccine. In fact, it has four vaccines in the last stages of the Phase 3 trials. It had a head start as it was the first country to be affected by COVID-19. China has already approved two vaccines under an experimental programme that started in July for soldiers and government employees. Wu Guizhen of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control said in the third week of September that the public would have access to the locally produced vaccine by November. But Western governments and influential NGOs have warned against trusting any vaccine from China. In its annual report released in mid September, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) conceded that the first vaccines to reach the market would be of Russian and Chinese origin. Bill Gates however told The New York Times that he did not trust them as they were untested and potentially weak.

The BMGF Report states that 37 million people around the world have fallen below the poverty line in the last several months in the aftermath of the pandemic. The report concluded: “The longer the pandemic lasts, the worse its economic scars will be”.

China has said that it will supply its vaccine to the most affected countries in the developing world on a priority basis. Beijing has announced that Latin American countries will receive $1 billion in loans to buy the vaccines. The Philippines and Indonesia will be among the Southeast Asian nations receiving the Chinese produced vaccine, predicted to be in the market in the next couple of months. China has the capacity to manufacture hundreds of thousands of doses at short notice. President Xi Jinping has vowed that the Chinese produced vaccines will be used for the good of the international community.

The BMGF Report stated that twice as many deaths could be prevented if COVID-19 vaccines could be first distributed to all countries based on their populations rather than to the 50 richest countries, as is being currently planned. The Trump administration has pointedly refused to join COVAX, the global collaborative initiative spearheaded by the WHO, which aims to ensure that all countries receive COVID-19 vaccines simultaneously. The Trump administration has paid $11 billion to six pharmaceutical companies to fast-track vaccine development programmes. The companies are expected to produce at least 100 million doses each. The vaccine they produce will be exclusively for the use of U.S. citizens.

India has preferred to keep a distance from China in the global fight against the pandemic. With the face-off at the border, relations between the countries have soured further. India has not requested for the Chinese vaccine, but is pinning its hopes on the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine. An Indian company has signed a contract to mass-produce the vaccine in India but the Phase 3 testing of the vaccine is yet to begin.

Cuban vaccine

Cuba is also developing a vaccine named Sovereign 01 that should be ready for distribution by early January 2021. Cuba is the only Latin American country authorised to conduct clinical trials to produce a vaccine against COVID-19, and has offered to provide Latin American countries with the vaccine. All Cubans have access to free health care and therefore will be eligible for vaccinations at no extra cost. The Cuban government has signed an agreement with the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) to distribute the Sovereign 01. The WHO has warned that the world will have to wait until the end of 2022 for life to return to normal. The WHO’s COVAX initiative will be able to pool the hundreds of millions of doses only by the middle of next year.

Six months since the pandemic broke out, some countries have managed to emerge relatively unscathed. China reopened schools in the first week of September. The country’s 200 million schoolchildren can now get the benefit of in-person learning from kindergarten to Grade 12. The government has invested heavily in providing masks, gloves, infrared thermometers and other equipment for the schools. The parents of the children were back at work a few months ago and China is already on the way back to economic recovery. President Xi Jinping in a speech said that the country’s progress in fighting the virus and the opening of schools had “fully demonstrated the clear superiority of the Communist Party leadership and our socialist system”. China imposed the toughest measures to beat back the pandemic, many of which are still in place as there are fears of the pandemic resurfacing during the coming winter months.

Pakistan

Pakistan, especially in comparison to India, has done a far more reasonable job in combating the pandemic. The WHO has said that the world community should learn lessons from the way Pakistan and a few other countries have dealt with the pandemic. Pakistan’s health system is weaker than India’s and the country has a large population which lives in congested and poverty-stricken areas. Despite these constraints, it has done much better than most Western countries.

Pakistan’s youthful population may be one reason why the mortality rate is comparatively low. The average age in Pakistan is only 22. Only 4 per cent of the population is 65 years old or older. Pakistan has decided to open all educational institutions in phases from September 15 onwards. Prime Minister Imran Khan, who takes much of the credit for the way Pakistan has handled the pandemic, had opposed a total lockdown from the beginning saying that a poor country like Pakistan could not afford it. Instead he enforced a targeted and limited “smart lockdown” to keep the economy afloat. The Pakistan economy is expected to witness a growth of 1 per cent this year.

The WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a media briefing that Pakistan’s success could be attributed to the deployment of the infrastructure it had built to tackle polio. He said: “Community health workers who have been trained to go door to door vaccinating children for polio have been utilised for surveillance, contact tracing and care.” He also praised a few other countries in their handling of the pandemic. “There are many other examples, including Cambodia, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Rwanda, Senegal, Spain and Vietnam. Many of these countries have done well because they learnt their lessons from previous outbreaks of SARS, MERS, measles, Ebola, flu and other diseases. That is why it is vital that we learn lessons from this pandemic,” he said.

Europe

In Europe, most governments seem to have given up the fight against the pandemic and instead opted to coexist with the virus. French President, Emmanuel Macron, who had previously urged France to wage a “war” against the virus, now wants the nation to “learn how to live with the virus”. European governments have gauged the mood of the people who are fed up with the stringent restrictions that have been in place for the last six months. The lifting of the lockdown in most of Europe has led to a second wave of infections, especially in France, Spain and Britain. France and Britain have re-imposed some restrictions. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered restrictions on family gatherings. Only a maximum of six people can now congregate for a celebration.

Meanwhile, Israel has become the first country to reimpose a total lockdown. The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced that the lockdown would come into effect before the start of the Jewish New Year on September 19. The decision came after Israel recorded the highest cases of COVID-19 infections per capita. As many as 1,136 deaths have been reported in a population of 9 million. The vast majority of cases have occurred after May when Netanyahu ordered the lifting of the “lockdown” and told people to “go out and have a good time”.

The death rate due to the coronavirus epidemic shows no signs of stabilising in Latin America. The region accounts for one-third of all COVID-19-related deaths, although it has only 10 per cent of the world’s population. Brazil remains the most affected country in the region, with the second highest number of deaths, narrowly trailing the U.S. With more than 70,000 deaths, Mexico is second on the list in Latin America, and has registered the fourth highest death rate in the world. Peru has the dubious distinction of having the highest number of COVID-19 deaths per capita, with 30,000 deaths recorded so far in a country with a population of less than 32 million. Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador also figure among countries that have recorded the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths per inhabitant. Countries like Cuba, Uruguay and Venezuela, though, have managed to control the spread of the virus, and the mortality rates here are still in double digits.

As a result of the pandemic, the official level of unemployment will reach 13.5 per cent by the end of the year in Latin America. This will be an increase of 5.4 per cent as compared to the previous year. The number of unemployed will rise from 26.1 million to an even more unmanageable 44 million by the year-end in Latin America. The total number of Latin Americans living in poverty is expected to rise from 186 million to 231 million.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor