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MAPping the Future

Amid the devastation of COVID-19, glimmers of hope

/ 04:01 AM January 10, 2022

For all the pain and suffering caused by the coronavirus infection, it has also given us reasons for optimism about the future.

A major cause for elation about what is arguably the worst viral scourge in recent memory is how it has hastened the development of lifesaving vaccines that used to take years to develop.

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As Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria recently observed, “… the one thing that distinguishes this pandemic from all previous ones in history was the speed with which humankind came up with a vaccine.”

We refer, in particular, to the accelerated pace of development of an anti-COVID vaccine based on the mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) technology.

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On Nov. 9, 2020, or barely a year since the outset of the pandemic, Pfizer made the startling announcement that its COVID-19 vaccine, codeveloped with German biotechnology company BioNTech using the mRNA platform, is over 90 percent effective in preventing the illness. mRNA technology has since become the de facto industry standard in developing vaccines and the entire range of lifesaving drugs and therapies.

Commendable collaboration

In an equally surprising move, Big Pharma appears to have seized the moment when many of its major players decided to join forces in three essential areas to fight back the deadly virus: devising diagnostic tests to identify those who are infected with the virus and those who are not, coming up with therapies that will shorten the course of the disease and lessen its severity, and developing vaccines to stem its further spread.

These initiatives taken by Big Pharma are truly commendable. We note in particular Pfizer’s strategic move in investing heavily in its effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine despite the extremely slim odds of successfully coming up with one, and in deciding to scale up production and distribution facilities well in advance of its availability for distribution.

The immediate availability of the anti-coronavirus vaccines was a major factor in preventing the pandemic from developing into an even more tragic global crisis.

Inequitable vaccine distribution

Regrettably, the hugely successful rollout of the coronavirus vaccines has been extremely uneven and inequitable, benefiting mainly the world’s richest countries which bought up most of the supply and hoarded it to serve the needs of their own citizens. From a global perspective, this act of national self-preservation is largely self-defeating because, not only does it disproportionately harm the populations of the world’s poorest nations, but it also tends to put the entire world at risk by providing the breeding grounds for fast-evolving and vaccine resistant variants of the virus—as indeed the currently raging Omicron variant has proven to be.

The World Health Organization and other vaccine-equity advocates as well as some progressive elements in the pharmaceutical industry contend that universal access to COVID-vaccines can be accelerated and made sustainable by encouraging drug manufacturers and distributors to share their intellectual property, technical capabilities, and production and distribution facilities.

For the good of all

Fortunately, a number of drug companies have risen to the occasion and have taken the initiative to share their complementary resources and to collaborate in a joint effort to make the vaccines available to those who are least able to afford them. The current issue of Fortune magazine (issue of October/November 2021) cites the following examples:

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– the contract to “fill and finish” vaccine doses in South Africa entered into between Aspen Pharmacare, Africa’s largest pharmaceutical company, and Johnson & Johnson;

– a similar agreement between Pfizer and BioNTech on the one hand, and Biovac Institute of South Africa and Eurofarma Laboratorios in Brazil on the other; and

– the contract between AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India allowing the latter to serve as licensee, both to produce and distribute the vaccine.

There are a large number of Philippine drug manufacturers and distributors that can potentially enter into similar agreements with vaccine producers, a long list that includes United Laboratories, AstraZeneca Philippines and Getz Pharma.

The response of the pharmaceutical industry to the COVID-19 pandemic amply demonstrates how business can serve the interest of society while pursuing its traditional strategic objectives. INQ

This essay was excerpted in part from the author’s upcoming book, “Strategy in the New Age of Capitalism” (forthcoming from the UP Press).

The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and not the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or MAP. The author is a retired professor of Economics and Management, and currently professorial lecturer at the University of the Philippines – Diliman. Feedback at [email protected] and [email protected]

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