The Current

In the race to find a COVID-19 vaccine, this epidemiologist urges governments to set aside nationalism

As scientists race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, global scientific co-operation is needed more than ever before, according to epidemiologist and global vaccines expert Seth Berkley.

'What's important is that we don't end up with these being seen as national efforts,' said Seth Berkley

Researchers around the world, including those in Canada, are actively searching for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Robert Short/CBC)

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As scientists race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, global scientific co-operation is needed more than ever before, according to one epidemiologist.

"What we know is that there's vaccine efforts going on around the world in places like China, in South Korea, in Germany, [and the] U.K.," said Seth Berkley, the CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a UN-backed organization that helps deliver vaccines to developing countries.

"What's important is that we don't end up with these being seen as national efforts."

Researchers in Canada are actively searching for a vaccine with work at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. Meanwhile, trials for a potential vaccine have been given a green light in China, and a healthy volunteer in the U.S. was given an experimental vaccine on Monday.

The World Health Organization cautions, however, that any potential vaccine is still at least one year away.

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Berkley says that as progress on a vaccine moves forward, it's imperative that countries avoid nationalistic rhetoric.

"What I've heard now in many countries is saying, 'Well, gee, we need these products for ourselves. Maybe we ought to be thinking about, you know, doing this just for us,'" he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"I think that's the wrong way to think about it."

Prep work for the future

By the time a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, Berkley acknowledges that it's possible the current coronavirus epidemic could be over.

But that doesn't mean the work was a failure, he said, pointing to research on a vaccine for the Ebola virus. 

By the time a potential vaccine for that disease was discovered, the outbreak was under control — and researchers couldn't immediately test its efficacy.

But when another outbreak took hold, "it already had been produced, and that made us be able to move quicker," Berkley recalled.

The epidemiologist adds that greater effort could be put on developing platforms on which vaccines are built. He likens it to the annual flu vaccine: while its base stays the same, each year the vaccine is modified depending on the flu strain that's circulating.

The trouble with researching pandemics, Berkley says, is that interest wanes once they pass.

"Everybody says, 'My God, we have to deal with this,' and then as soon as the epidemic is over, people move on and we forget about it," he said.

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Who will get the vaccine?

Who will get a future COVID-19 vaccine is a question many are grappling with, but Berkley says it should immediately be offered to areas that are most affected.

When a vaccine was created after the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak, he says wealthy nations scooped up the first batches, leaving developing countries without supply.

In the case of COVID-19, Berkley said "we're going to start out-thinking about access from the beginning — and the challenge will be to make sure there is adequate quantities of vaccine produced."

While the WHO plays a crucial rule in vaccine distribution, no official oversight body exists. Berkley believes this is something G20 leaders should consider.

In the meantime, he hopes COVID-19 will signal a need to prioritize what he calls "global health security" with both money and political action.

"One silver lining might be that we take this seriously going forward and not just solve this epidemic, but prepare for the ones that will occur in the future."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Mehek Mazhar