Multilateralism vs nationalism in race to provide vaccine

Just over a century ago the Spanish Flu of 1918 took hold of a war-torn Europe, during which time we were powerless to intervene with anything aside from public health measures. Now, a century’s cycle since that pandemic, and the moment scientific research first displayed its strength to the public in defeating the invisible threat of infection, scientists are once again at the forefront of affecting humanity’s odds of survival.

A lot has changed since 1918. Our global investment in research provides us with the scientific wherewithal in 2020 to create vaccine candidates against the SARS-CoV-2 virus with a view to a global immunisation programme (at the time of writing, there are 323 vaccines in development).

However, equitable access to a future vaccine for all countries, regardless of their economic status, means that we turn to our leaders to collaborate and commit to a programme of vaccine development to enable widespread immunisation.

COVAX, the world’s largest and most diverse portfolio of COVID-19 vaccines, has been established to provide a programme for governments to sign up to that will ensure their citizens get access to the most efficacious vaccine, while also enabling equitable access for other countries.

Backed by the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and GAVI, COVAX works by pooling the resources of nations, meaning greater efficiencies in vaccine development and production, with the added benefit of cost saving through the negation of competition between countries.

Naturally however, such an initiative will suffer without the participation of the world’s wealthiest countries.

So against the backdrop of increasing nationalist sentiment and with the ebb of populism still eroding confidence in free market economics, it seems a sign of our times that global superpowers are not only competing to ensure their country’s place at the front of the line for a vaccine, but also eschewing the COVAX initiative and multilateral access to a future vaccine.

Indeed, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia are all in separate discussions with suppliers of prospective vaccines to secure their access to doses, with the former shunning COVAX entirely, but it is an expensive and competitive game.

China, however, is showing signs that they may join, alongside a handful of wealthy European countries which are leading the collaborative charge, whereas Russia currently leads its own vaccine development programme outside of international standards.

Borderless collaboration

At IN-PART we foster connections between academic research and prospective industry partners looking to collaborate and develop research into new technology. Our company encourages the engagement of research by industry as seamlessly as possible under the ethos that knowledge has no preferable provenance.

Our observations of the scientific community and the borderless collaboration between research institutions and companies seeking opportunities to combat the pandemic are notable, commendable and in keeping with an effective worldview for global health.

Since our inception nearly seven years ago, we have tracked the international dialogues we create via our system and approximately 75% of the 9,000+ interactions we’ve initiated occur outside of the country where the research originated.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we, like many other companies, looked internally as to how we might play a role. Fortunately, it was clear to see how we could make an impact, namely by opening up our industry network to any COVID-19-related opportunity available for commercialisation from any research institution regardless of them having a subscription to our matchmaking platform.

In this respect IN-PART serves as a partnering system 365 days of the year, enabling companies to keep abreast of novel, commercialisable opportunities coming out of universities, rather than having to wait for the snapshot a conference provides.

A recent update from our communications manager summarises our three-month open call for COVID-19 research and the 174 opportunities we received.

Once each opportunity was vetted by our in-house team of experts to ensure its relevance and completeness for ease of understanding and commercial potential, it was proactively disseminated to our industry network.

In total, more than 60 collaborative discussions are taking place under the guise of translating COVID-19-related research into impactful technologies to mitigate the spread of the virus, from vaccines and therapeutics to diagnostics and personal protective equipment.

In stark comparison to the rhetoric of governments locked in nationalist sentiment, 68% of all the dialogues taking place between teams in academia and industry around COVID-19 via IN-PART are between international partners.

Since the pandemic stopped the majority of, if not all, face-to-face partnering conversations in March, we fully expected more domestic collaborations to be established, but our vision holds true that research translation, like much of science, is an international endeavour.

The scientific community thrives on global collaboration and our best chance for successful interventions to COVID-19 lie with effective research translation across borders. It is this mindset that propels research out of the lab and into new technologies and treatments and it is our hope that governments acknowledge the effectiveness of a collaborative ecosystem, uniting under initiatives such as COVAX to provide a global response to an indiscriminate pandemic.

Robin Knight is director and co-founder of IN-PART.