In less than four months, people the world over will mark the one-year rampage of the killer disease COVID-19. December 2019 is generally regarded as the month in which the new coronavirus -- now known as SARS Cov-2 – was first reported, though studies have suggested that the first outbreak may have occurred in September last year and gone undetected.
December last year, however, stands out because it was in this month that China’s whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang shared a confidential document on a SARS-like mystery ailment in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei Province. SARS is a coronavirus disease which first emerged in China in 2002/2003 and then spread to several countries, mostly in Asia. It affected more than 8,000 people worldwide, with the death toll being 774. In contrast, COVID-19 has affected almost 24 million people worldwide so far and of them more than 820,000 have died. It was also in December 2019 that the World Health Organisation (WHO) first rang the alarm bells when it picked up a report the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission published in its website. The report spoke about cases of viral pneumonia of unknown cause. Several international news agencies also filed stories about the mystery pneumonia in Wuhan. However, their stories did not get the attention they deserved. By this time, the virus had already travelled to Italy, India and other countries. A month later – in January this year – countries started reporting about their first cases. Sri Lanka reported its first COVID-19 case in January 27 this year. The patient was a 44-year-old Chinese tourist from Hubei Province. She received treatment at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases and was sent back to her country after she fully recovered.
On March 11, the WHO declared the new coronavirus disease as a pandemic. Several countries, including Sri Lanka, went into lockdown, while the pandemic wreaked havoc all over the world, making people sick and sending the world economy into the worst recession since the Great Depression of 1930.
Now all this is part of human history. Generations to come will remember 2020 as annus horribilis. With pandemic staying with us for nearly nine months, the people have adjusted themselves to the new normal. Yet they live in hope that just as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), COVID-19 will also disappear from the face of the world. The only hope is the vaccine. Yes, it is coming. For Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has so far seen one million COVID-19 cases and more than 15,000 deaths, the vaccine has already come. It is being touted as Russia’s second Sputnik moment, the first being in 1957 when the Soviet Union – the Cold War avatar of Russia – beat the United States in the space race by sending the first man-made satellite to space in a game of one-upmanship.
The same game of one-upmanship replete with spying, hacking and secret agendas, is here again – this time to clinch the crown of medical kingdom. On August 11, Russia announced it had found the vaccine for COVID-19 and named it Sputnik V. To the world drowning in the COVID sea, the Russian vaccine could be a lifeline or the proverbial straw of the drowning man. Sceptical about Russia’s claim, the United States and many western nations are accusing Russia of playing with people’s life by ignoring safety protocols. They say the Russian vaccine has not gone through the final phase of the trial – testing it on a large number of people with diverse conditions. Dismissing criticism of its vaccine as being prompted by sheer jealousy, Russia, however, insists its vaccine is safe and effective and it has received orders from around the world for some 20 million vials.
The race for the vaccine began in March this year with the WHO declaring the COVID- 19 outbreak as a pandemic. Russia had an early lead because its main rival, the United States, was unprepared to face the pandemic. Besides, the US administration was headed by an egoistic president not known for rational decision-making.
President Donald Trump’s dimwitted remarks on the pandemic indicated that he had not properly understood the gravity of the crisis. Instead of taking effective measures such as an early lockdown, he made use of the crisis to hit out at China in a display of irrational masochism. He imposed a selective ban on travel to and from China, but left out Europe where the disease was fast spreading with countries like Italy and Spain becoming new hotspots. Then he said the coronavirus would be gone by summer with the temperature and humidity in the air rising. He also called for a research into whether coronavirus might be treated by injecting disinfectant into the body and asked whether Covid patients could be cured by irradiating UV light into their bodies. Apart from Russia, other major players in the race are China, the US, Britain and India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his independence day address this month expressed hope of mass producing a COVID-19 vaccine once Indian scientists gave their nod. Meanwhile, reports yesterday said a Chinese private firm had already developed a vaccine and would make it available in the open market in November at US$ 140 a shot. Of the six WHO-recognised vaccine candidates, three are from China. These vaccines are in their final stages and are undergoing mass trial in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Peru, South Africa and Argentina.
The race to make the first effective coronavirus vaccine is a welcome competition only if nations enter it with the intention to serve or save humanity. But if they do it to make commercial profits and boost their egos, then they should be deplored. Vaccine nationalism apart, whether manufactured by private pharmaceutical companies or state-owned ventures, the lifesaving product should be available to every country and every person at an affordable price. Amidst the greedy capitalists’ commercial drive for profit through the coronavirus vaccine, the WHO’s COVAX initiative shines as the best way out of the COVID crisis. Some 172 countries are having discussions to potentially participate in this global initiative aimed at working with vaccine manufacturers to provide countries worldwide equitable access to safe and effective vaccines, once they are licenced and approved. Supporting the WHO initiative, Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven says, “Equal access to a COVID-19 vaccine is the key to beating the virus and paving the way for recovery from the pandemic. This cannot be a race with a few winners, and the COVAX Facility is an important part of the solution – making sure all countries can benefit from access to the world’s largest portfolio of candidates and fair and equitable distribution of vaccine doses.”
Needless to say, if COVAX wins the race, greedy capitalists will be the losers while we all win! If capitalists have their way, the cure could be worse than the disease.