In mid April, Adar Poonawala, the CEO of Serum Institute—a manufacturer of immunobiological drugs—announced that it would manufacture a vaccine against COVID-19 being developed at the Jenner Institute at Oxford University. Poonawala appeared on several news outlets and spoke of beginning production of 5 million doses a month of the vaccine by May, and scaling up to 10 million doses a month towards the end of the year. The vaccine had not yet completed clinical trials, but Poonawala said he was taking a risk and committing the company’s resources to start manufacturing the vaccine even before trials had been completed, so that if the vaccine was successful, it could be distributed immediately.
In normal circumstances, this announcement would have been seen as premature, and a risky gamble for any company to take. If the vaccine did not clear clinical trials, Poonawala’s investment would go to waste. But these are extraordinary times, and the only hope for the world to return to anything near normal is a vaccine. Because the pandemic is global, the scale of demand for a vaccine is unprecedented. An estimated 2 billion doses of vaccine would be required for high-risk groups alone: those over the age of 65 and healthcare workers.
This situation has triggered a global scramble for vaccines even before their efficacy has been proven. The United States is leading the charge with a $10 billion war chest to invest in vaccine manufacturers to assure early supplies for its citizens. With countries such as the United Kingdom following suit and succumbing to what has been called “vaccine nationalism”—an approach in which countries prioritise their own market interest instead of working together—there are massive uncertainties how and when countries with comparatively less bargaining power, including India, will get access to the vaccines.