Scientific internationalism - working together on vaccines

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Thanks to scientists working together across borders, vaccines against Covid-19 have been developed so fast, writes Rajni George.


Yewande Oyetade, a medical laboratory technician in Lagos, Nigeria, collects samples for Covid-19 testing at the Agege Primary Health Centre. ANDREW ESIEBO/PANOS

Zhang Yongzhen (a virologist in Shanghai) produced the first complete genome sequence for Sars-CoV-2 on 11 January 2020. This started all the vaccines around the world, and helped international collaboration.

Zhang agreed not to get any payment, and took the risk that Chinese authorities could be angry at him. This was because his friend (University of Sydney professor Edward Holmes) posted the sequence on the website

The genome sequence was the most important step to the big race to find a vaccine; this race now needs to keep pace with all the worrying mutations.

Professor Sarah Gilbert in Oxford quickly linked the genetic structure of the virus into previous work on coronaviruses. The result was the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

Scientists worked together across borders, and they designed other vaccines in only 10 months. The aims were: to end the pandemic; and to get money and professional success. So there was vaccine internationalism in the scientific community at least.

Often individual people put humanity before company or country. For example, a young Chinese researcher, Nianshuang Wang, worked with Jason McLellan, a US molecular biologist at the University of Texas at Austin. This collaboration was very important in creating both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

The research was in the US. Wang found a way to stabilize the shape-shifting spike protein of a coronavirus. Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, CureVac and Translate Bio now use this technology too.

Relations between China and the US got worse, but Wang’s work with McLellan is symbolic of science rising above politics.


Collaboration between American Jason McLellan (left) and Chinese Nianshuang Wang (right) led to a vital breakthrough that made several mRNA vaccines possible. VIVIAN ABAGUI/UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS, AUSTIN

Scientists collaborated to create the vaccines, and also to produce them. The Serum Institute of India produces 60 per cent of the world’s vaccines. It has worked with partners across the world to make a lot of several Covid-19 vaccines, including Oxford-AstraZeneca. And Hetero Biopharma (based in Hyderabad) plans to make more than 100 million doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine per year, through a deal with the Russian Direct Investment Fund.

Some partnerships are more predictable than others. Brazil planned to start making the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine early in 2021, but there were problems; Brazil’s rightwing government blamed China for the pandemic and said they did not believe the vaccines were effective, but then they made an agreement with Sinovac (a Chinese vaccine maker). Cuba is now developing its own vaccine. If this is successful, it will share with Venezuela and other countries in the region.

And it all started with Zhang and his very important decision in January 2020. From March 2021, there were more than 60 possible new Covid-19 vaccines in development in clinics, and more than 170 in pre-clinical development, according to the World Health Organization. Rajni George is a writer and editor based in south India.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)