The rest of those in the list may seem a lot less familiar. That’s because Merck terminated its vaccine research four months ago, while Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline flunked its Phase 2 trial by failing to generate a sufficient immune response. Novavax vaccine actually looks very good. The company announced a 96% efficacy rate in Phase 3 testing just last week, and should be in front of the FDA in the next few weeks.
When Novavax rolls out, the U.S. government will own the first 100 million doses. In addition, the U.S. locked down options on an astounding 300 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine back when it seemed this approach, designed in conjunction with a team at Oxford, might be first through the gate. With all that vaccine still available, the U.S. looks to be headed from vaccine shortage to a serious surplus over the next few months.
What to do about this? Give it away.
As the CBC reports, the U.S. isn’t waiting until the closets are overflowing before the vaccine starts heading out. The U.S. is sending 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca to Canada and another 2.5 million doses to Mexico. The deal is being structured as a “loan,” with the understanding that the U.S. could call those countries to provide an equal number of doses later, but it seems unlikely that this loan will ever be collected.
The idea that America is shipping vaccine across the border at a time when U.S. citizens in several states are still having trouble lining up their own vaccination is bound to generate some pushback. However, the AstraZeneca vaccine is not only not approved for use in the U.S., the company is still roughly a month away from putting their data in front of the FDA.
This was largely AstraZeneca’s choice from the beginning. After the Phase 3 trial was marred by an error that saw some patients getting different amounts of vaccine, and the resulting data seemed to suggest that the smaller dose of AstraZeneca’s vaccine generated a greater immune response, it was clear that the FDA and their panel of outside experts would have tough questions. AstraZeneca chose to simply opt out of that challenge, moving instead to distribution in the UK and Europe where approval came more readily.
The vaccine is already approved in both Canada and Mexico, so it can be used there immediately. If the doses were kept in the U.S., they would only be sitting on a shelf for at least another month.
Beyond making immediate use of a vaccine that would otherwise just be (literally) chilling, the distribution to Canada and Mexico shows exactly what the United States should do if the expected vaccine stockpile arrives—give it away. Other than keeping a supply on hand to deal with any fresh outbreak, the best thing that America can do, to protect Americans, is to send the vaccine around the world.
There are a number of reasons that handing off vaccine—especially to countries that either lacked the funds to compete in a competitive market for these vaccines, or whose leaders were so callous that they failed to make any arrangements—is the best thing for both the world and the U.S. As the news has demonstrated all too often lately, new variants of COVID-19 have emerged with some frequency as random changes in the 30,000 base pairs of the virus generate changes. These changes can affect how contagious the virus is, how virulent it is, and how evasive it is to either vaccines or the antibodies generated through past infection.
So far, several of the variants that have appeared are both more contagious and more evasive than the “original” variants from either China or Europe. However, none of these variants is so evasive that they can overmatch the effects of these first generation vaccines. However, the longer that the SARS-CoV-2 virus remains in wide circulation, generating trillions of copies in millions of hosts, the better the chance that such a highly evasive version will emerge.
Distributing the U.S. vaccine surplus will help to reduce the cases of COVID-19 worldwide, which in turn will help reduce the number of emerging variants. At the same time, variants will emerge, and the result will be to gradually make any stockpile of these first generation vaccines less effective and less valuable. Using them now is far more valuable than holding them for later.
With several vaccine companies already developing or testing updated versions that incorporate some of the latest variants, there will soon be a new set of vaccines ready to punch up the immune system. And since coronaviruses, unlike influenza, don’t have a mix-and-match tool set of ever shifting surface proteins, it’s quite probable that the vaccine manufacturers will be able to stay ahead in this evolutionary race—especially if the virus is denied a huge number of hosts in which to conduct experiment by accident.
There’s no doubt that even the small number of doses being shipped out at the moment will steal a few minutes worth of Cat in the Hat time on Fox News, and generate a profound statement from Republican party leader Marjorie Taylor Greene. They may even break away from constantly spreading false information about vaccine safety and efficacy long enough to be outraged. But getting people vaccinated around the world is a safety measure for the nation.
Plus, it also happens to be the right thing to do. It’s nice when those things go together.
And now … Dr. Anthony Fauci takes Rand Paul to the “but I’m a doctor” woodshed.
Author’s note: In the most inconsequential COVID-19 news, I was vaccinated yesterday. Hope you get your chance soon.