And who knows what happens as viral variants emerge and people start to scramble to develop vaccines targeting the new variants and forget about the needs of other countries once again?
Hamblin: Right. We could be like: Sorry, we need our second round of updates before you even get one.
Gonsalves: Yeah. Sorry, we screwed it up the first time. And then they’re going to screw it up again … Everybody wants to go back to normal. [But we’re going to have] waves of coronavirus infections across the planet that we’ll have to tackle with new vaccines every few years when a variant emerges. So, we’re just going to be living in a new normal.
And it could reshape our lives very much like the big catastrophic moments in modern history have to generations before us. We weren’t prepared for it. We’re not rising to the challenge in a way that’s going to make quite a bit of difference. And this isn’t going to be our last time at the rodeo. Pandemics will come at us. AIDS, Ebola, H1N1, swine flu, this now. What’s going to be next?
We had a chance to scale up worldwide vaccine production and readiness. If you can’t do it in the midst of a global pandemic, when does it ever get real for anybody? That’s the thing that scares me the most. As a species, we are playing with fire.
Hamblin: It sounds like we’re in a moment right now where we could either accept this new normal where, indefinitely and globally, large numbers of people are sick and dying from SARS-CoV-2 and from future variants. Or we could aggressively try to stamp this out by ramping up vaccination in creative ways, like making these a public good.
We started talking about a tweet that I had that was not well-worded and got a lot of criticism for the idea that a lot of places around the world could produce these vaccines if we were to think out of the box. I got a lot of pushback—that it’s not possible and only Pfizer and Moderna can basically make these vaccines.
Gonsalves: Could we make double the amount of Moderna vaccine with another contractor tomorrow? No. But it took a year for the company to scale up their production capability. And we know that’s true, because there was no SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development in our imagination [not long ago].
If there was political will, the U.S. and other rich countries could underwrite a global production plan for mRNA vaccines. We could make a plan, figure out who’s going to pay for it, and then tell Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson: We’re going to do this as a global community.
If NIH wants to exercise its patent rights and tell Moderna to use it or lose it, we can do that too. They’re going to have to provide tech transfers. We can remunerate them for whatever they want. We get that up and running so that, in six months to a year, there’s more capacity to get these highly effective vaccines out there.