A battle with time

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A battle with time

Choi Hyeon-chul

The author is policy director of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Mankind is grappling with the deadliest and strongest influenza since the Spanish flu in the early 1900s. The battle with Covid-19 has stretched beyond a year after many turning points.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has recommended that blood clots be listed as “very rare” side effects of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. The intramuscular injection developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca uses Adenovirus, which causes cold-like symptoms in chimpanzees, as a viral vector. Its safety and efficacy were proven against Ebola and MERs. The vaccine, which is stable at refrigerator temperature, is being produced at several sites. Unlike Pfizer and Moderna products that must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures, its storage and transport is easier. What was once touted as a gamechanger and savior to the Covid-19-beleagued world has become a source of concern.
Quarantine was the only protection when there was a lack of information on the novel virus and no knowing when vaccines would arrive. Korea stood out. Its containment results drew global awe. But countries who failed in containing the spread have dramatically turned around as they had gone all-out to secure vaccines. It took just six months to develop a vaccine on Covid-19 instead of the usual decade or minimum two years. After six months of clinical trials on humans, public inoculation began, first with the countries that invested heavily and hosted vaccine developers.
According to the Our World in Data (OWID), Israel came first among OECD member countries in doses of Covid-19 vaccine administered among its population with 117 percent rate, followed by Britain at 54.6 percent and the United States at 50.4 percent.


But vaccines do not entirely solve the problem. Hungary with a vaccination rate of 36.6 percent, fifth among OECD members, is top with the number of new cases with 680 citizens testing positive per 1 million. Chile, No. 2 in the vaccination rate, also ranks 8th in virus spread with 360 citizens testing positive per 1 million. In the U.S., some 68,000 new cases are reported on a daily basis. In daily counts, the U.S. tops OECD members and is second globally only to India. The situation in Chile provides a lesson. It lifted borders in January even when its inoculation rate was below 1 percent. Facing the risk of virus variants in neighboring countries, Chileans went on vacations without wearing masks. Vaccines cannot be a sure protection.
Still, developed nations are adhering to vaccine nationalism. AstraZeneca can produce 3 billion doses and other four vaccine makers a combined 5 billion doses by the end of the year. But the supplies have already been taken by the U.S., Britain and Israel. Covax was institutionalized as a global initiative for equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. But they still remain rare in poorer countries. World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus found “catastrophic moral failure” as rich countries dominate vaccines. Bloomberg projected that at this rate, it could take seven years until herd immunity is achieved across the world. Even if some developed countries achieve herd immunity, they won’t be able to fully lift their borders for years.
New vaccines may change the course. First could be Sputnik V that already has been administered to Russians. Russians administered the shots without proper clinical trials. But an interim analysis from medical journal The Lancet shows 91.6 percent efficacy without unusual side effects. The EMA has been reviewing its authorization over a month.
Jason McLellan — a structural biologist at the University of Texas at Austin who discovered the spike protein used by the vaccines of the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnnson & Johnson and Novavax — has shared his research work for free. A team of scientists at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City, succeeded in cultivating the spike protein from chicken eggs. The products entered clinical trials in Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam. When they are proven safe and effective, Covid-19 vaccines can be manufactured as easily and massively as flu vaccines.
New vaccines will be a game-changer, but only time will tell when the battle with Covid-19 ends. A rash lifting of mitigation rules could lead to a new surge in the outbreak as seen in Korea’s case.
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