The world’s largest global players are scrambling for a COVID-19 vaccine.
The governments of China, Russia, the US and UK are actively seeking to be the first to produce an approved vaccine – which will not only save lives, but could also become an avenue of global influence.
Each major player in the multibillion dollar race is at varying degrees of success, with the motivations of some world leaders shifting over the course of the pandemic.
A vaccine must go through multiple stages of research, development and clinical trials before it gets the green light for use by the broader public. Each step can take up to two years or more to complete.
There are concerns, however, about the speed at which these COVID vaccines are being pushed through.
What’s in it for the country that wins the race?
With the 3 November 3 election fast approaching, experts say President Donald Trump is increasingly desperate to produce a COVID-19 vaccine.
Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s vaccine partnership effort, has invested more than $US10 billion into developing a successful vaccine.
The US has been the world’s hardest-hit by the virus. The country has recorded 6,326,696 infections and 189,639 deaths since the pandemic began, according to Johns Hopkins University figures.
Dr David Smith, a Senior Lecturer in American Politics and Foreign Policy at the University of Sydney, said the pandemic’s impact on the US has put pressure on the Trump administration to be the first to find a cure.
He told SBS News that winning the vaccine race could restore some of the president’s standing, and restore the perception of the US as a global leader in medical research.
But at this point, even that may not be enough.
“I think the coronavirus has exposed so much dysfunction in the United States – a real inability to respond to a health crisis despite having all of these medical and scientific resources at its disposal,” Dr Smith said.
“Maybe the fast development of a vaccine will restore some of its standing, but even then, it’s not going to bring back all of the people who died.”
Even if the US does get to the vaccine first, Dr Smith noted other countries won’t be far behind.
He also said there could be some resentment towards the US if the vaccine isn’t rolled out globally.
“We don’t yet know what the political picture is going to look like if someone develops a vaccine and it’s not available to everyone around the world,” Dr Smith said.
“There might be resentment towards the US if the US develops it first, and it’s not available to everyone else – if it’s just ‘America First’.”
Mr Trump has repeatedly hinted that a vaccine could be available to Americans before the election.
“He prefers the idea that there could be a vaccine that could solve all the problems instead of having to go through things like lockdowns and mask mandates,” Dr Smith said.
“But Trump is going to keep talking about it as part of his re-election campaign. Throughout the pandemic, he has emphasised these kinds of miracle solutions to the problem.”
Experts say President Donald Trump is increasingly desperate to produce a COVID-19 vaccine.
China had a head start on developing a COVID-19 vaccine.
On 25 June, a vaccine being developed by pharmaceutical firm CanSino and the People’s Liberation Army was given a one-year approval for use in the Chinese military.
On 22 July, Sinovac Biotech was approved to give its vaccine to health workers and others in “high-risk” professions.
Xi Jinping has previously indicated that his vaccine would be a “global public good”, made available for all nations.
In a white paper unveiled by the State Council Information Office earlier this year, the government urged global cooperation, saying the international community should resist finger-pointing and politicising the virus.
The Chinese government said the medical cost of all the coronavirus patients in China totalled $191 million as of the end of May.
President Xi last month pledged $2 billion in financial support over the next two years to help deal with COVID-19, especially to help developing countries.
Xi Jinping has previously indicated that his vaccine would be a “global public good”, made available to all nations.
In August, Vladimir Putin announced that a team of Russian scientists had developed a vaccine that had been approved by regulators in Russia.
The announcement sparked concerns among health authorities as human trials had only started a couple of months before the news came through.
A study published by The Lancet medical journal last week found that the vaccine, named Sputnik-V, produced an antibody response in all participants in early stage trials conducted in June and July.
The two trials, which involved 76 participants, showed that all of them developed antibodies to the virus with no serious side effects, according to the study.
The vaccine’s Russian developers claimed the drug could provide protection from COVID-19 for more than two years.
Professor Alexander Gintsburg, director of the Moscow-based Gamaleya Institute that developed the vaccine with assistance from Russia’s Defense Ministry, told reporters that the vaccine triggers “sufficient” immune response “to counteract any imaginable dose infecting (a person) with COVID-19”.
“We are ready to assert that the protective effect of this vaccine will be detectable and remain at a proper level for two years, or maybe even more,” Professor Gintsburg said, without providing any evidence to back up the claim.
Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said broader issues could be at play.
Dr Davis said Russia could also see the vaccine as a tool to help bolster global influence.
But he said Mr Putin had already “blown it” by trying to push a vaccine so fast. “Everyone is now suspicious of their vaccine because it hasn’t gone through stage three testing,” he said.
Russia has begun its COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
AstraZeneca, a Cambridge-based pharmaceutical giant, has been developing a leading vaccine in collaboration with the University of Oxford.
On Wednesday the company announced it had suspended its late-stage trials for the vaccine after one participant suffered a “potentially unexplained illness”.
In a statement, the company said it “voluntarily paused” the phase 3 clinical trial, which started in July.
“This is a routine action which has to happen whenever there is a potentially unexplained illness in one of the trials, while it is investigated, ensuring we maintain the integrity of the trials,” the statement said.
“In large trials illnesses will happen by chance but must be independently reviewed to check this carefully.”
The Australian government signed an agreement with AstraZeneca last month to secure the vaccine, with a total 84 million doses to potentially be rolled out in stages next year, pending successful trials.
The Oxford vaccine is slated to be available in Australia from early 2021 while a University of Queensland version is on track for mid-year.
Temporary holds of large medical studies aren’t unusual, and investigating any serious or unexpected reaction is a mandatory part of safety testing.
The development came the same day that AstraZeneca and eight other drugmakers issued an unusual pledge, vowing to uphold the highest ethical and scientific standards in developing their vaccines.