Either yesterday or today, the number of Covid-19 vaccine doses administered globally will have passed 200 million. Some countries, like Israel and the UK, are quite far along; others haven’t yet started; and it’s fair to argue that the developing world is spending too much effort worrying about its own citizens and not enough developing vaccination strategies for the global South. You don’t have to look far to find media stories excoriating governments and other organizations for vaccine rollouts that are slow, uneven, and inequitable.
But hold on here. 200 million doses. Of a vaccine aimed at a virus we’ve known about for less than 15 months.
One year ago, on February 23, 2020, the pandemic was not yet pan. Infection rates were rising in South Korea and Iran, and the first few dozen cases had cropped up in Europe and North America. We knew rather little about how the virus was transmitted and although its genome had been sequenced, work had just begun on vaccine development. In the past, new vaccines have taken years to develop – often many years. Our current mumps vaccine held (I think) the speed record: 4 years, for a disease that had been well studied for many decades.
And now here we are, exactly one year later, arguing about whether the first 200 million doses of several different safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines went into the right arms or the wrong ones.
I know this isn’t a novel thought – but what an astonishing feat this is for science. There’s more to unpack here than I’m qualified to unpack, but at least two things are obvious. First, we’ve never resourced a drive for a vaccine like we resourced this one. Any government that doesn’t propose major increases in funding for vaccine development, for some of the other disease that plague humanity, is missing a really important lesson. Second, all the resources in the world couldn’t have done this without the huge knowledge base we’ve built over decades – and not just in molecular biology and immunology (although that’s impressive) but in statistics, and epidemiology, and evolutionary biology, and more. Most of that work was done without targeting to a Covid-19 vaccine, or even to any vaccine at all. Most of it was “curiosity-based research” (which isn’t a great phrase, but generally means science done without regard for its immediate commercial or health application). Thus, any government that doesn’t propose major increases in funding for curiosity-based science, as broadly as possible, is missing another really important lesson.
Now, none of this means we can’t do better distributing vaccines equitably. And none of it means we shouldn’t. So yes, it’s reasonable to direct constructive criticism at vaccine distribution, both within jurisdictions and at a global scale. But let’s also remember what a scientific triumph it is that we’re in a position to level that criticism. And let’s invite our governments to do what it takes so that we can level that criticism again and again in the future.
© Stephen Heard February 23, 2021
Image: © Lisa Ferdinando via Flickr.com CC BY 2.0