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The great vaccine rollout and the global pecking order

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by Rajan Philips

Last Tuesday Britain became the first country to administer the first multi-nationally developed Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. Eight hundred thousand doses of the vaccine are being distributed among the Isle’s four nations in the first stage of the British rollout. Canada is starting its Covid-19 vaccination this week with 250,000 doses of the same vaccine; another 20 million doses are arriving next year along with over 350 million other vaccines. While welcoming the arrival of the Pfizer vaccine as “the beginning of the end of the epidemic in the UK,” Prof. Stephen Powis, medical director of the National Health Services England, has also cautioned that getting to the end itself is going to be a “marathon [and] not a sprint.” Britain has ordered 40 million doses so far and it will cover 20 million people with two shots each, 21 days apart. There are still 47 million to account for. It is a long haul.

In the US, Donald Trump is not happy that Britain got the vaccine before the US and he is even madder that he will not be able to claim credit for vaccination in America as much of it will happen after he leaves office. In any event, many of his supporters may refuse to take the vaccine because it is not mentioned in the US Constitution! Under its military “Operation Warp Speed” vaccination program, the US has issued purchase orders for 800 million doses from the world’s six leading vaccine contenders, although there is some controversy about the timing of vaccine deliveries. Last Tuesday, Trump issued a meaningless executive order that all vaccines procured by the US must be delivered to the US first before vaccines are supplied to other countries.

Russia meanwhile got ahead of both the UK and the US, launching three days before UK its nostalgically named Sputnik V vaccine in Moscow which accounts for about a quarter of Russia’s infections. For several months, China has been conducting mass trials involving millions of recipients for two of its five vaccines in development, Sinovac and Sinopharm. Beijing is yet to announce its internal vaccination program proper, but has already shipped 1.2 million doses of Sinovac to Indonesia, a nation of 274 million people. India has the world’s single largest vaccine manufacturer in the Serum Institute established in 1966, in Pune. The Institute has an annual production capacity of 500 million doses, and has production contracts with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as well as the Novavax vaccine. The first 100 million doses of Serum’s production are earmarked for use in India, while the rest will be open for distribution among developing countries.

The vaccine rollout I have described here is hardly global in that it is tilted entirely in favour of wealthy countries, and excludes much of the rest of the world, with the exception of the two giant outliers – China and India. This global vaccine anomaly is being exposed and criticized by the People’s Vaccine Alliance that includes well known civil society organizations such as Amnesty International, Frontline AIDS, and Global Justice Now. The Alliance has pointed out that wealthy countries representing only 14 per cent of the world’s population have so far reserved 53 per cent of the most promising vaccines, and thereby limited the ability of the world’s nearly 70 poor countries to vaccinate only 10% of their populations for all of 2021.

A majority of the developing countries are consigned to getting their supply from the pool of vaccines provided by the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) facility, the global organization set up by the WHO to ensure “rapid, fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.” It is partnership of high-income countries and lower-income countries involving 60% of the world’s population, with the former providing for the supply of vaccines to the latter. The expectations are that the WHO will supply 20% of a developing country’s population at no cost. But the reserved quantities for COVAX, according to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, now amount to a single dose for about three people in developing countries, or 16% of the population. Even that may not be fully available in 2021. The root of the problem is too much reliance on donor charity and too little desire to tackle the structural aspects of anomaly.

 

The Pecking Order

The world’s ten leading Covid-19 vaccine contenders, including the Chinese (Sinovac) and Russian (Gamaleya) manufacturers, have a total capacity to produce eight to nine billion doses a year. The chart below illustrates the current capacity and pre-order of each vaccine candidate. Of the ten contenders, excluding the Chinese and Russian contenders, only three vaccines – Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca, are at the point of getting public health authorization in multiple countries. The three have a combined annual capacity under four billion doses. Novavax and Johnson & Johnson are expected to join them in 2021, and raise the capacity to six billion doses. In other words, even in any best-case scenario, it will easily take at least three to four years before a majority of the world’s peoples can receive their two shots of the Covid-19 vaccine.

 

Add to this what might be called the tragedy of the aggregate – in that while the combined global Covid-19 vaccine production capacity might exceed the world’s total demand, not every country, or not individuals within countries, would be equally positioned to receive the new vaccine without too much delay. Within the so-called high-income countries (HICs), the priority for vaccination is being given to the elderly, frontline healthcare workers, people with medical conditions, and those who are in essential services. But there is no reason-based system for distributing vaccines between different countries. The global pecking order privileges those in HICs far above the people in lesser income countries. The two charts below provide a snapshot of the per capita procurement levels (Calling the Shots); and the bulk vaccine orders placed by individual and groups of countries with different vaccine manufacturers.

 

As shown in the chart, Canada leads the pack with confirmed orders for just under 10 doses for each of its 37.7 million people. Australia and Britain are procuring just over five doses per head, while every other country or region is under three doses per head. At the bottom of the chart is COVAX, with a single dose for about three people. The bulk order chart shows 2.4 billion doses reserved for developing countries, whose estimated population, excluding China, is 3.6 billion people. Almost all of the reserved developing country supply will come from India’s Serum Institute and the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Novavax vaccines, which are considerably cheaper than Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.

On the supply side, “all of Moderna’s doses and 96 percent of Pfizer/BioNTech’s doses are contracted to HICs. In contrast, 64 % of Oxford/AstraZeneca’s doses are pledged to people in developing countries. But their supply can “only reach 18 per cent of the world’s population next year at most.” As well, Oxford/AstraZeneca’s deals are mostly with big developing countries like China and India, while the majority of developing countries are left to depend entirely on the COVAX facility.

 

Vaccines as global Public Good

This global pecking order and the disparity between countries are inevitable to some extent, but the question is what efforts are being made by national and international leaders to mitigate this seemingly natural gap. The signs of mitigation are not as encouraging as the rhetoric of global reset and assertions of global solidarity. The same wealthy countries that have ratcheted up vaccine procurement, are also opposing the waiver of the World Trade Organization’s rules for protecting intellectual-property rights, that is required to facilitate the production of Covid-19 vaccines in developing countries.

Led by South Africa and India, ninety-nine WTO members have called for a temporary waiver of WTO rules. The People’s Vaccine Alliance supports the waiver request, but it is being flatly rejected by the HICs, including the UK, the USA, Canada, Norway, and the EU. The HICs, which are under pressure by the pharmaceutical industry, are not supportive of structural changes, and would rather prefer a charitable avenue like COVAX. The UK is the largest funder of COVAX, and is keener about urging for more donations than supporting any rules waiver. WTO decisions are normally reached through consensus, and so a majority vote will be meaningless if the HICs are not willing to compromise.

To address, these disparities, the People’s Vaccine Alliance “is calling on all pharmaceutical corporations working on COVID-19 vaccines to openly share their technology and  intellectual property through the World Health Organization COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, so that billions more doses can be manufactured and safe and effective vaccines can be available to all who need them.” In addition, the Alliance is calling for Covid-19 vaccines to be made as “a global public good—free of charge to the public, fairly distributed and based on need.” A first step would be “to support South Africa and India’s proposal to the World Trade Organization Council to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments until everyone is protected.”

It is indeed a pity that there should be so much global disparity in the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, when all the scientific work and breakthroughs that created them have involved unprecedented international collaboration at every level. In 1955, when Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh developed his successful vaccine against polio, the then generational scourge in the US and elsewhere, he was hailed as a “miracle worker,” but he declined to patent the polio vaccine, or to profit from it. He would rather let it be free for maximum global distribution. When asked, “Who owns this patent?”, Dr. Salk famously replied, “Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Dr. Jonas Salk chose to walk away from a $7 billion worth patent and let his vaccine be a global public good. Why cannot Covid-19 vaccines be similarly another global public good?

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31st night…Down Under

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The NYE scene at the Grand Reception Centre, in Melbourne

Despite the COVID-19 restrictions, the Voluntary Outreach Club (VOC) in Victoria, Australia, was able to hold a successful New Year’s Eve celebration, at The Grand Reception Centre, in Cathies Lane, Wantirna South.

In a venue that comfortably holds 800, the 200 guests (Covid restrictions), spanning three generations, had plenty of room to move around and dance to the array of fabulous music provided by the four bands – Replay 6, Ebony, Cloud 9 with Sonali, Redemption and All About That Brass. 

The drinks provided, they say, oiled the rusty feet of the guests, who were able to finally dress up and attend such an event after nine months of lockdown and restrictions. With plenty of room for dancing, the guests had a thoroughly enjoyable time. 

According to an insider, the sustenance of an antipasto platter, eastern and western smorgasbord, and the midnight milk rice and katta sambol, were simply delicious, not forgetting the fantastic service provided by Jude de Silva, AJ Senewiratne and The Grand staff.

The icing on the cake, I’m told, was the hugely generous sponsorship of the bands by Bert Ekenaike. This gesture boosted the coffers of the VOC, which helps 80 beneficiaries, in Sri Lanka, comprising singles and couples, by sending Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 3,500, per month, to each of these beneficiaries, and augmenting this sum, twice a year, in July and December, with a bonus of the same amounts.

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Fall armyworm:

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Strategies for effective management

by Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

Emeritus Professor of Entomology University of Ruhuna and former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy

Fall armyworm Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera; Noctuidae), a quarantine pest, has been identified as a very destructive insect pest of Maize/Corn. This insect originated in Americas and invaded the African region in 2016 and was detected in India the following year and perhaps would have naturally migrated to Sri Lanka last year from India. Now, it is reported that FAW is present in all districts of Sri Lanka except Nuwara-Eliya and Jaffna. In winter in the USA the pest is found in Texas and Florida and subsequent summer when it gets warmed up, the pest migrates up to the Canadian border. The corn belt of China is also at a risk due to its migratory habit and the cost to Africa, due to this invasion, will exceed $ 6 billion. Maize is a staple food crop in Africa and millions depends on it for food. Hence in Africa and now in Asia it is a global food security issue for millions of people that could be at a risk if FAW is not controlled. The adult moth migrates very fast almost 100 km every night and nearly 500 km, before laying 1,500 eggs on average. The entire life cycle lasts 30 days in tropical climate. There are six larval instars and mostly the destruction is caused by the last three instars and the growing moth pupates in the soil for 10-12 days and the nocturnal adults lay eggs on leaves for about 10 days The pest thrives on about 80 host plants but the most preferable host is Corn/Maize. In Sri Lanka the preferred hosts includes Kurakkan and Sugarcane in addition to Maize. The symptoms of damage- scrapping of leaves, pin holes, small to medium elongated holes. Loss of top portion of leaves fecal pellets in leaf whorl which are easily recognizable. The Comb is also attacked in later stages with a heavy infestation, but after removing the FAW affected portion of the comb the remaining portion is still suitable for consumption and there is no fear of any toxicity. There are two morphologically identical strains––maize strain that feeds on maize and sorghum, and rice strain that feeds on rice and pasture grasses. However, in Sri Lanka only the maize strain has been detected so far. FAW thrives in a climate where drought is followed by heavy rains on a similar way we have experienced last year.

Although new agricultural insect pests are found in Sri Lanka, from time to time a number of factors make FAW unique (FAO Publication 2018)

1

FAW consumes many different crops 2 FAW spreads quickly across large geographical areas 3.FAW can persists throughout the year. Therefore Sri Lanka needs to develop a coordinated evidence based effort to scout FAW for farming communities and effective monitoring by the research staff

 

Management

Since the pest has already arrived in Sri Lanka, the Government/ Ministry of Agriculture should formulate short, mid and long term strategies for its effective management with all stakeholders. Also it has to be clear that a single strategy ex pesticides will not help in effective control but a proper combination of tactics, such as integrated pest management should be employed in the long term. In the short term, the recommended pesticides by the Department of Agriculture should be employed along with cultural and sanitary control strategies. These strategies have now been formulated and what is required to enlighten the farmers and people by utilizing the trained staff. The country should be placed on a war footing and an emergency should be declared in the affected areas to coordinate the control strategies. The integrated control tactics, such as cultural control, should be integrated with pesticides based on the recommendation of the research staff. The residues should be destroyed after harvest and avoid late planting and staggered planting. The Ministry of Agriculture should create awareness among the farmers and train the farmers on early detection of egg masses found on leaves and destroy them by hand. The pesticides for FAW control is recommended by the Department of Agriculture (Please contact Registrar of Pesticides of the Department of Agriculture for the recommended list of Pesticides) and they have to make it available at subsidized rates or given free with technical information considering the emergency. When the larvae are small early detection and proper timing of pesticides are critical for elimination of the pest. With this outbreak some farmers and the private sector is engaged using highly hazardous pesticides which should be avoided to make way for sustainable alternatives. The Department Entomologists should train the farmers for early detection of egg masses when present on 5% of the plants and when 25% of the plants show damage symptoms and live larvae are present on war footing. The economic threshold has been calculated as 2-3 live larvae per plant and the control strategies should commence as soon as this threshold is detected by visual observation. The majority of development officers, agriculture and science graduates working in Divisional Secretariats, are already trained on pest control and their participation on training the farmers for early detection and pesticide selection and application warrants the strategy. Some of the recommended pesticides are follows: Chlorantraniliprole 200g/1SC: Trade name Corogen, Emamectin benzoate 5%SG: Trade name Proclaim,, Flubendiamide 24% WG : Trade name Belt. The Principle Entomologist of the Dry Zone Research Station of the Department of Agriculture ( Mrs KNC Gunawardena) has prepared an effective online presentation on FAW control and this has to be shared by all. The African country Ghana has declared a state of emergency in response to this invasion as Maize is a staple crop which should be followed by us in Sri Lanka.

The long term strategies include early detection. Stopping its spread and initiation of a long term research programme to identify tolerant varieties and granting permission to import such varieties as seeds. The country should ear mark on a Biological control strategy by breeding and releasing FAW parasitoids regularly. In USA larval parasitoids such as Apanteles marginiventris, Chelonus insularis and Microplitis manilae have contributed to keep the pest population down along with egg parasitoids Trichrogramma spp and a similar program should be initiated in the affected districts. Finally the best option is to establish a task force with the involvement of entomologists, extension personnel along with the administrators and scientists working in the universities to ensure the country are safe with regards to food security

 

 

The author has read for a PhD at University of Florida Gainesville in the USA in 1985 and his PhD thesis exclusively deals on Fall armyworm parasitoids and its ecology

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President’s decision on Colombo Port in national interest

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by Jehan Perera

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has announced that the government will be entering into an agreement with the Adani Group, based in India, to offer them 49 percent of the shares in a joint venture company. This joint venture will include Japanese government financing and will manage one of the terminals in the Colombo port. The entry of Adani Group, into the Colombo port, has been opposed by a wide coalition of organisations, ranging from port workers, and left political parties, to nationalists and civil society groups. These groups have little in common with each other but on this particular issue they have made common cause and even held joint protests together. The main thrust of their objections is that control over the East Terminal of the Colombo port will pass into foreign hands and result in an erosion of Sri Lankan sovereignty.

The cause for alarm, among the protesting groups, may be fueled by the observation that one by one, the ports of Sri Lanka are being utilized by foreign powers. In particular, China has entered into Sri Lanka in a big way, obtaining a 99-year lease in the Hambantota port that it constructed. The Hambantota port, in its early period, showed it was economically unviable in the absence of Chinese cooperation. The burden of debt repayment induced the previous government to enter into this agreement which may become unfavorable in terms of national sovereignty. There were protests at the time of the signing of that lease agreement, too, though not as effective as the present protests regarding the change of management in the Colombo port, which is led by the very forces that helped to bring the present government into power.

In addition to the Hambantota port, control over the South Terminal in the Colombo port, and a section of the harbour, has been given to China through one of its companies on a 35-year lease. In both cases, large Chinese investments have helped to upgrade Sri Lanka’s capacity to attract international shipping lines to make use of the port facilities. The Hambantota port, in particular, could benefit enormously from Chinese ships that traverse the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and Africa. Instead of making refuelling stops elsewhere along the way, such as Singapore, they could now come to Hambantota. However, with these investments would also come a Chinese presence that could cause concerns among international actors that have geopolitics in mind. It may be that these concerns are finding expression in the opposition to the Indian entry into the Colombo port.

 

RATIONAL ANALYSIS

It will not only be Sri Lankans who are concerned about the Chinese presence in the country’s ports. As Sri Lanka’s nearest neighbour, India, too, would have concerns, which are mirrored by other international powers, such as Japan. It might be remembered that when Japan’s prime minister visited Sri Lanka, in 2014, there was a diplomatic furor that a Chinese submarine entered the Colombo port, unannounced, even to the Sri Lankan government, and docked there. With its excellent relations with China, that go back to the 1950s, when the two countries signed a barter agreement, exchanging rice for rubber, most Sri Lankans would tend to see such Chinese actions in a benign light. In recent years, China has emerged as Sri Lanka’s largest donor and its assistance is much appreciated. However, India’s relations with China are more complex.

The two countries have massive trade links, but they have also gone to war with each other due to territorial disputes. Even at the present time Indian and Chinese troops are in a stand-off on their disputed Himalayan border. In this context, India would be concerned that the Chinese presence in Sri Lankan ports could eventually take the form of an overall strategy to encircle it and use this leverage to India’s disadvantage. Sri Lanka’s location at the bottom of the Asian continent gives it a strategic importance in the Indian Ocean that goes beyond any possible India-China rivalry. The recent visit of US Secretary of State to Sri Lanka included an acerbic exchange of words between the US and Chinese representatives on that occasion and an open call to Sri Lanka to take sides, or not to take sides. As a small actor in itself, Sri Lanka would have no interest in getting involved in international geopolitics and has a longstanding policy of non-alignment and friendship with all.

More than anyone else, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be aware of these geopolitical issues. As Defence Secretary, during the years of war with the LTTE, he was a key member of the government team that obtained wide ranging international support for prosecuting the war. Today, the President’s key advisers include those with military backgrounds who have special expertise in geopolitical analysis and who have spent time in leading military academies in different parts of the world, including the US, China and India. This contrasts with the more parochial thinking of political, nationalist and even civil society groups who have come out in opposition to the agreement that the government has entered into with the Indian company to manage the Eastern Terminal of the Colombo port.

 

GEOPOLITICAL IMPERATIVE

President Rajapaksa was elected to the presidency in the context of the security debacle of the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks and with the expectation that he would provide clear-cut leadership in protecting the country’s national security without permitting partisan interests from becoming obstacles. In his meeting with the representatives of the trade unions, opposing the handing of management of the Eastern Terminal to foreign hands, the President is reported to have said that geopolitics had also to be taken into account. As many as 23 trade unions, representing the Ports Authority, the National Organisations collective, and a number of civil organizations, have joined the formation of a new national movement named the ‘Movement to protect the East Container Terminal’.

One of those political representatives at the meeting, leader of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), Pubudu Jayagoda, is reported to have said, “When trade unions met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Wednesday (13), he told them about the broad geopolitical factors in play. This is reminiscent when the unions met former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe a few years back. The unions told Wickremesinghe what they told Rajapaksa––the ECT could be operated by Sri Lanka in a profitable manner. Wickremesinghe told the union representatives, ‘You are talking about the port, I am talking about geopolitics’.” However, former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe may not have had the necessary political power to ensure that his vision prevailed and failed to ensure the implementation of the agreement.

Entering into the agreement with the Indian company will serve Sri Lanka’s national interests in several ways. By ensuring that India is given a presence in Sri Lanka’s most important port, it will reassure our closest neighbour, as well as Japan, which has been Sri Lanka’s most consistent international donor, that our national security interests and theirs are not in opposition to each other. Second, it takes cognizance of the reality that about two-thirds of the Colombo port’s shipping is due to transshipment with India, and thereby ensures that this profitable business continues. Third, it will give Sri Lanka more leverage to negotiate with India regarding key concerns, which includes Indian support to Sri Lanka at international forums and in providing guarantees for the unity of the country in the face of possible future threats and the need to ensure devolution of power to satisfy ethnic minority aspirations.

 

 

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