Variants and misplaced snobbery

By Alexander Smith
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One looming potential flaw in COVAX’s short-term rollout is that it depends largely on just the one vaccine developed by British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

One study has suggested this vaccine offers slightly less protection against a new variant identified in South Africa. Data is limited, and there’s no evidence the vaccine is any less effective at stopping serious illness. But almost immediately South Africa and neighboring Eswatini halted its deployment.

Officials involved in the deployment say they have no plans to significantly modify their strategy, however.

Some also believe COVAX should have expanded its horizons.

Chinese and Russian vaccines were initially met with skepticism in much of the West due to a lack of data transparency. But studies suggest they may be just as safe and effective as the best Western shots.

“We started with quite a high degree of snobbery about non-Western countries lacking our regulatory scrutiny,” said Danny Altmann, an immunology professor at Imperial College London. “In fact, the majority of these vaccines have been safe, efficacious and should all be in the toolkit.”

COVAX has been working to add Chinese vaccines to its portfolio, Aylward at the WHO said, but it’s taken longer because China’s drugmakers aren’t as familiar with COVAX’s approvals process.

Some COVAX countries, including Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia and Ukraine, have already taken matters into their own hands, striking their own side deals with Beijing, according to Airfinity, a pharmaceuticals analytics company.

“It is frustrating because every time one country is making a bilateral deal, the neighboring countries may say, ‘OK, maybe I should also do a bilateral deal,'” said Benjamin Schreiber, the lead COVAX coordinator at UNICEF, tasked with deploying these shots globally.

In contrast to Western vaccine nationalism, China opted for vaccine diplomacy — exporting more shots than it’s deploying at home. It’s also ahead on sharing, donating 10 million vaccines through COVAX itself.

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