The vaccine poker game
The race to find an effective vaccine for Covid-19 is on, but in today's complicated political, economic and regulatory landscape the path to success remains fraught with unknowns.
The process has taken on increased levels of uncertainty as many of the participants committed to this difficult task are holding their cards close to their chest, waiting to see how things develop before playing their hand.
Covax, a global initiative led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and several other public and private organisations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is one of the biggest players involved. It is focused on bridging the gap between developing a viable vaccine and distributing it globally to those who need it first, which many see as the real challenge.
A large part of Covax's funding comes from wealthy member countries that will subsidise vaccine access for poorer countries. Several dozen other nations have said they intend to join the initiative once complex regulatory issues have been resolved. Others are taking a mixed approach by planning to buy or license vaccines while developing their own.
Thailand is among the latter group. It is working on its own vaccine candidates, the most promising of which are about to move into human trials. At the same time, however, it has agreed to manufacture and supply a vaccine being developed by UK-based AstraZeneca domestically and regionally.
Thailand is among the countries holding back full support for Covax until some complex liability issues have been addressed.
Russia and the United States, the most notable Covax holdouts, are dealing directly with pharmaceutical companies rather than joining Covax outright. This does not mean they will not support the initiative, but they are taking a cautious approach before committing their wealth and leverage.
China was also a holdout until recently, when it agreed to join Covax and purchase enough vaccines for one percent of its population, while also working on its own candidates.
With its outsized influence on Asia's infrastructure and financial health, China has also promised to prioritise some of its partners and neighbours located along the network of the Belt and Road Initiative and countries within Asean or connected through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Covax also has its detractors. Some say pharmaceutical companies should be pressured to relax restrictions on intellectual property and licensing, which would make vaccines easier to manufacture and distribute.
One pandemic scholar said that while the scheme is a good idea it is not ambitious enough, noting that precious time will have been wasted without the chance of achieving herd immunity if rich countries secure their own doses first and then lose interest in further Covax support. The situation continues to evolve, with new developments almost daily.
Production and distribution of a vaccine on this scale is one of the biggest logistical challenges in recent memory. Many diligent minds are working hard to ensure a solution, but much work still needs to be done. The process could be improved if all parties shared their hands now to enhance collaboration and deliver greater benefits for all.
Suwatchai Songwanich is an executive vice-president with Bangkok Bank. For more columns in this series please visit www.bangkokbank.com