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The politics of a coronavirus vaccine

Sep 15, 2020 • 14m 33s

A coronavirus vaccine is the best chance the world has of returning to some kind of normal, but the stalling of one of the most viable candidates last week was a reminder that nothing is guaranteed. Today, Karen Middleton on the Australian government’s plans and the likelihood of a vaccine in 2021.

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The politics of a coronavirus vaccine

309 • Sep 15, 2020

The politics of a coronavirus vaccine

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

A coronavirus vaccine is the best chance the world has of returning to some kind of normal.

But the stalling of one of the world’s most viable candidates last week served as a reminder that nothing is guaranteed.

Today, Karen Middleton on the Australian government’s plans, and the likelihood of a vaccine in 2021.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Karen, last week, the company working on a promising vaccine announced that its trial was being put on pause. It’s since resumed, but tell me about what happened?

KAREN:

Yes, this was the Oxford University and AstraZeneca trial, which is among the most promising or most advanced of the vaccine candidate trials underway at the moment.

RUBY:

Karen Middleton is the The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent

KAREN:

And we got word, I think, on Wednesday morning last week that the trial was being paused because one participant in the trial had had an adverse event.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“The world is desperate to put its confidence in a covid vaccine but a health scare has temporarily derailed the best hope.”

KAREN:

Now, they didn't know whether it was related to the vaccine or not. In fact, they didn't even know whether that participant had received the vaccine. It could well have been a person who had received a placebo, which is obviously part of the trial.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“The patient was in the United Kingdom undergoing a phase 3 trial where the vaccine is tested on upto 50 thousand people.”

KAREN:

But what is a routine arrangement is if something happens that's adverse or unexpected, then the trial is paused while they investigate.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #2:

“This sort of event happens very frequently in vaccine trials, the reason we are hearing about it is because clearly there is a lot of scrutiny over the covid vaccine and clearly the researchers at Oxford and the company itself are keen on being as open and transparent as possible.”

KAREN:

There's a lot at stake in this circumstance, obviously, because it's affecting the entire world. Until we have a vaccine, we will have restrictions on travel. We will have requirements of social distancing and hand washing and all the things we've become so used to. So really, the world is waiting for a vaccine. But we're also being urged to remember that we may never get one.

RUBY:

So despite how hard scientists have been working to find a vaccine, and the enormous progress that has already been made, it sounds like this might be harder than we think?

KAREN:

Yeah, I think it is serving to remind everybody that it's not guaranteed, that this is science we're talking about. It's not magic. It has to follow a scientific course. And when there is something wrong, these trials will have to pause and be investigated.

I spoke to Jane Holton, who's the Australian former bureaucrat and chair of the global body that's sort of at the heart of all this. It's called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. Bit of a mouthful, there. She was saying that this pause of the trial is a real reminder that this is not a game. This is about science. And science has to take its course if we're ever going to get near a vaccine.

But there's also a sense that they can't be subject to political pressure. We are seeing some public figures like the US president, Donald Trump, urging more speed and talking about what sounds a lot like his election timetable.

Archival Tape -- Donald Trump:

“We remain on track to deliver a vaccine before the end of the year and maybe even before November 1st.”

KAREN:

He's due to go to the people for a presidential election in November. And he's been talking confidently about getting some vaccine result by October. I think he's about the only person I've heard publicly say that.

Archival Tape -- Donald Trump:

“I just spoke to the head of Fiser, great guy, they announced that he expects to have the results of its trial very, very shortly.”

KAREN:

But there is political pressure and we've seen nine chief executives of big biopharma companies, global companies, issue a very unusual statement last week, basically recommitting themselves to the scientific process and not effectively being swayed by any of this pressure that's being applied to find a solution fast.

RUBY:

And it's not only in the US that we're seeing raised expectations of a vaccine. The Australian government has also been talking up the possibilities. So can you tell me about the agreements that have been made here?

KAREN:

Yes, it's a challenge, including for the Australian government to find the right language that is optimistic and confident, but not too confident.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Australia needs some hope today, and particularly in Victoria they need some hope today and so that is what we are here to deliver today.”

KAREN:

The language, well, the word that the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt were using last week was hope.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“So a home grown sovereign plan for vaccines is the hope I bring to Australians today.”

KAREN:

Probably erring on the side of maybe overconfidence a little in the way that they were talking about it.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Hopefully that is in the early part of next year. Well, it certainly can under this arrangement be from the start of next year, with what we've been able to put in place, should the trials and other arrangements be successful.”

KAREN:

They were announcing $1.7 billion in agreements to produce, manufacture and distribute a vaccine to Australians if and when it's available. And those agreements are with the producers and researchers of two different vaccine candidates. One of them is the AstraZeneca Oxford University vaccine, and the other one is a vaccine candidate being produced and with some promise by the University of Queensland. So there's a lot going on from the Australian point of view.

RUBY:

And what exactly are we hoping for when it comes to a successful vaccine?

KAREN:

The ultimate would be you could get one shot in your arm. Everybody could have it, it wouldn't matter what conditions you had. You could tolerate it. And it would protect you from this terrible virus forever. And that would see the thing eradicated pretty fast. But in the absence of that, there is some flexibility around effectiveness.

There are certain benchmarks, I'm told, that researchers and regulators have for how effective a prospective vaccine needs to be before it would be considered for mass production and distribution.

They may well lower that a little bit because this is so urgent. They may say, okay, even if it's only effective for a little while, at least, that buys us some time.

RUBY:

And what is the timeline, Karen, from the federal government’s perspective?

KAREN:

They are quite optimistically and hopefully talking about the prospect of getting the first Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine doses into Australia, maybe as early as January and February.

And then the health minister, Greg Hunt, was suggesting maybe the UQ vaccine later in the year. But there are other people saying privately, look, I'm not sure that we can say with any confidence any months of the year next year will be likely.

RUBY:

So does the Australian government then have a backup plan if these specific agreements that you have mentioned don't deliver vaccines as planned?

KAREN:

They do. And it's called Covax facility. And Covax is aimed at making sure that lots of countries can get access to the vaccines that are approved, whether they can afford to pay for them or not.

RUBY:

We’ll be back after this.

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RUBY:

Karen, let's talk about the options that we have here in Australia to get access to a coronavirus vaccine. Can you tell me more about the government’s backup plan, the Covax buy-in?

KAREN:

Well, Australia's getting involved with this Covax facility, which has been set up by two international organizations that are focused on vaccine production and distribution.

The first is CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic and Preparedness Innovations, and the other one is GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance.

So CEPI gets involved because it's a philanthropic organization, a public private partnership that helps to fund vaccine research. So it's currently funding nine vaccine candidates around the world, including the UQ and Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine trials.

And GAVI is involved in helping poor countries access vaccines so that the rich countries don't get everything and leave the poor countries with nothing.

We've seen that in the past with some vaccines and there's a strong desire to make sure that doesn't happen in this case.

Because they say while anyone is unprotected across the world, well we're all unprotected, effectively. If we want the borders to open internationally and we want to be able to travel and get back to some semblance of normal life, then we can't just focus on looking after ourselves. We've got to make sure that all the countries have access.

So the Covax facility was set up by the two of them. Those two sides of the equation. For countries that can afford it, like Australia, are able to buy in and commit to paying a certain amount of money to get a number of doses of whichever of those vaccines becomes successful to distribute to their own populations. And they're also being encouraged to make philanthropic, effectively, contributions so that other countries, poorer countries, can also have access.

Australia has currently committed initially to buying into access further vaccine development. And that's kind of an insurance policy on those two that they've already suggested that they will purchase in case there's a different one in that batch of nine that ends up being more successful or more effective than the ones they've already opted for in the kind of covering their bases a bit there.

They haven't formally yet committed to the other side of the coin, which is making sizable contributions to help cover the costs of countries that can less well afford it.

RUBY:

And there are currently three hundred and twenty one vaccine candidates in development and 10 percent of them are at this stage of human trials. So who is actually making the decision in terms of which vaccines Australia should be pursuing?

KAREN:

Well, the Australian government has set up an advisory task force looking at Covid-19, and that is chaired by Dr Brendan Murphy, the former chief medical officer who's now the secretary of the federal health department.

And he and his committee of experts are advising the government on where the prospects are for vaccine candidates. And then the government will be taking that advice, considering it and working out whether they want to commit further funds to access to vaccines for Australians. And if so, which ones and how much.

RUBY:

When and if a vaccine is found, there would still be challenges in terms of a worldwide vaccination effort, right? It would be a huge undertaking.

KAREN:

Absolutely. The biggest ever, actually. There's never been a proposal for mass vaccination on a global scale like this. You know, previous pandemics, the Spanish flu, etc. There weren't mass vaccination endeavors like this. So this would be a huge, huge task.

There will need to be strategies in place for how that would be rolled out. Prioritizing the most vulnerable, working out which parts of communities across the world should be targeted to both protect the people receiving it, but also most effectively limit the spread of the virus further on.

So there'll be all kinds of ethical decisions that have to be made about, do you give the virus to younger people? Because even though they don't get as sick as older people, they do spread it, it seems.

These are all decisions that ethicists in this space will have to wrestle with and they're all contingent on what kind of a vaccine we end up with. And, of course, if we end up with one at all.

RUBY:

Karen, thank you so much for your time today.

KAREN:

Thanks, Ruby.

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news today:

Victoria Police's Professional Standards Command is investigating the arrest of a man in Melbourne's north.

The man’s arrest, which was captured on video by a passing motorist, appears to show an officer stomping on the man's head with his foot. The footage shows five officers surrounding the man and holding him down.

And Australia has recorded fewer than 40 new coronavirus cases today, the lowest national case total since June.

There were 35 new cases in Victoria yesterday. All of the cases were within the Melbourne region.

NSW recorded four new cases: three in hotel quarantine and one linked to a cluster in the eastern suburbs in Sydney.

No other states or territories recorded coronavirus cases.

If you enjoy listening to 7am make sure to subscribe in your favourite podcast app to make sure you don’t miss out on episodes.

I’m Ruby Jones, see ya tomorrow.

[Theme music ends]

A coronavirus vaccine is the best chance the world has of returning to some kind of normal, but the stalling of one of the most viable candidates last week was a reminder that nothing is guaranteed. Today, Karen Middleton on the Australian government’s plans and the likelihood of a vaccine in 2021.

Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton.

Background reading: Vaccine trials and tribulations in The Saturday Paper

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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309: The politics of a coronavirus vaccine