Focus on vaccine research

Laboratory staff hard at work at the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) facility in Shah Alam, where some samples of the coronavirus are extracted and used for vaccine research.

AS we struggle to end Covid-19, public health experts agree the solution lies in the rapid deployment of vaccines. Despite the many conspiracies surrounding vaccines, scientists were not deterred from pressing ahead to develop one for Covid-19.

The outcome has been impressive. As a result of recent advances in vaccine research, only in a matter of one year, a few vaccine candidates became ready for the market, not just from the West but also from the East.

This goes to show that the many years of investment in vaccine research is paying off. Normally it would take longer, even up to five years, to develop a workable approved vaccine. We saw from the vaccines developed that they came from partnerships between research laboratories and Big Pharma.

The Pfizer vaccine, for example, was successfully developed through a partnership between Pfizer and Biontech of Germany. The AstraZeneca vaccine had the support of researchers from Oxford University. I have no doubt that all the other vaccines, such as Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinovac, were also developed through such partnerships.

Nearer to home, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam are all investing in vaccine development. The recent announcement by the Malaysian government to embark on a similar commitment should be lauded.

It is right that the Institute for Medical Research (IMR), the nation’s foremost research centre for health, is handed the task to coordinate this. In fact, we need to strengthen the IMR to become a world-class research centre for medicine again. It was one in the not-too-distant past.

Many among IMR’s scientists then were world figures in medical science. It is time to return to those glory days. It is even more urgent now as we witness how a neglect in the health system can bring untold damage to the economy and people’s livelihood.

We should seriously consider allocating more of the nation’s budget to medical research. Increasingly, today’s wars are not fought against nation states, but against microbes which pose threats to public health and disrupt economies.

The health budget should also allocate funds to improve health literacy. There is evidence that a majority of the population are still unaware of preventive health measures. Cases of obesity, a precondition for many serious ailments, are on the rise in the country. Early on during the vaccine rollout, many had doubted the benefits of vaccination. This only changed when positive news about vaccinations was shared through the media.

People are now more supportive of vaccinations. They flock in droves to get vaccinated. Now, we have to deal with the issue of vaccine supply. There have been reports of even vaccine hoarding by some developed economies. This has deprived many countries of much-needed supply.

After some pressure from the World Health Organisation (WHO), some of the developed countries have announced that they are giving free vaccines to poor countries. The WHO has warned that there will be no herd immunity for the world unless a high percentage of the global population is vaccinated.

Two things have become clear from the pandemic experience.

Firstly, experts say this pandemic may not be the last. In fact, the world may have to live with Covid-19. This means investing in vaccine research and development is of paramount importance as a national strategy. Secondly, just like we have a policy on food security, we need to also put in place a national programme on health security and tap on its potential economic value.

PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM , Tan Sri Omar Centre for STI Policy Studies UCSI University

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