Put on ice
Following the declaration of the victory of Joe Biden in the US Presidential Elections, the stock market predictably rallied. This was to be expected, after all, Biden's policies are widely seen as being market-friendly by top CEOs. Not too long after, the stock market futures jumped even higher in response to the news of a promising COVID-19 vaccine that has been developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. While this is not the first so-called 'working' vaccine, coming as it does months after the Russian unveiling of the rushed Sputnik vaccine, this particular vaccine has raised hopes as the companies involved claim to have the evidence to support a rate of effectiveness that is higher than 90 per cent. These numbers have been arrived at as a result of a preliminary analysis of large stage three trials. Confident of their success, Pfizer has claimed that it will likely have emergency use authorisation from the FDA by next week.
Following up on the same, US Health Secretary Azar has promised to start procuring 20 million vaccines every month, likely starting from the end of this month. The US, like many other countries, has a USD 1.5 billion contract with the two vaccine makers to provide 100 million doses of the vaccine, enough to inoculate 50 million people with a double dose.
Coming at a time when the US is the first country to surpass ten million cases with seven straight days of record-breaking daily cases, news of the vaccine is much welcome relief. This is especially true as most experts have expressed helplessness in actually mitigating the expected impact of this much greater wave of infections during the winter months. Indeed, the head of Joe Biden's newly formed COVID-19 response team has blatantly stated that under the current administration, the daily caseload is only expected to double in the coming weeks. Biden was also quoted as saying that even with this new Pfizer vaccine, the US could very well lose another 200,000 lives before the winter is up. Predictably, questions are still being raised over just what, if anything, the outgoing Trump administration has achieved in keeping the pandemic under control. Health experts have noted with exasperation that the administration has not even done the due diligence of properly communicating the vaccination plan to the public or discussed what comes after. This is particularly important in a country like the US where vaccine-scepticism actually influences the decisions of a significant and growing section of the population. An indication of just how bad the situation is can be discerned from the fact that the State of Utah has actually gone so far as to issue a mask mandate, a serious affair in America where even rumours of the same have seen significant public uproar.
Naturally, the news of the vaccine has received a mixed response from the White House. On the one hand, Trump has attempted to congratulate himself for the achievement of somehow contributing to the vaccine being developed, on the other hand, he has called Pfizer, BioNTech and the FDA "cowardly" for not announcing the whole thing before the election. In his view, the results were withheld for purely political reasons of sabotaging the Trump campaign, a claim as hard to prove as his assertion of widespread electoral fraud in the finished US Elections. In what can only be called as a signature Trumpian assertion, he contended that the companies, the FDA and the Democrats had somehow collaborated to deny Trump his "Vaccine WIN".
US election and vaccine drama aside, the Pfizer vaccine has elicited a mix of hope and grim introspection elsewhere in the world. In India, even as the world celebrated news of the vaccine, IIMS Director Randeep Guleria bluntly stated that this vaccine does not presently hold much hope for India. The reason for this being that the new vaccine must necessarily be stored at -70 degrees celsius, a hard to maintain state in India given logistical challenges. Indeed, he asserted that the sort of super cold storage requirements for the vaccine would not even be met by most hospitals in big cities. On top of that, there was also a discussion of how mRNA based vaccines, while based on a new technology, will altogether be too expensive for India to easily provide its citizens. It may be noted that this problem is not unique to India or this particular vaccine. As we approach 2021 and many possible different vaccines for COVID-19, there is widespread concern that storage and delivery systems required for such a large scale operation are nowhere near adequate across most parts of the world. Pfizer for its part is aware of such limitations and has vowed to develop methods to effectively ship the vaccine across the world. But the fact remains that without the required cooling temperatures, the vaccine will spoil in five days at normal refrigeration temperatures, Given the stakes and the funds involved, loss of any number of vaccines to such temperature issues will be an incredible loss. There is still time. Even though the task ahead of India for preparing storage and delivery
systems is monumental, failure is hardly an option.