The Straits Times says

Race for a vaccine is not one of speed

An enormous amount of international prestige, to say nothing of profit, awaits the country that first develops a Covid-19 vaccine. This is natural. Earlier this week, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia had become the first country in the world to grant regulatory approval to a vaccine against the disease. This is news that attests to the scientific and technological prowess of a talented people who have registered achievements and made history in a wide variety of fields over decades - from transformers and synthetic rubber to helicopters and the launch of Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite. Appropriately, the vaccine will be named Sputnik V. It would be good, indeed, if a successful vaccine were to benefit humanity in the same way that the satellite expanded the horizons of space exploration and research for all. But while speed is important in discovering a vaccine for a disease that has ravaged lives and economies globally, what is essential is that the drug should be effective, tested and safe.

Concerns have emerged over the fact that Moscow's announcement, which paves the way for the mass inoculation of the Russian population, comes after less than two months of human testing. Human trials are critical in ascertaining the reliability of a vaccine. This principle applies to all countries and companies in the race to produce a viable drug. Popular acceptance of vaccination itself would be severely undermined should an antidote go wrong by proving to be ineffective or, worse, unsafe. Hence the need for caution.

Experts, cited in a vaccine-tracker survey earlier this month, estimate that even a fast-tracked process could propel a victorious candidate to the market in about 12 to 18 months and that, too, is only if the process proceeds seamlessly from scientific conception to market availability. Such a timeframe, and its attendant caveats, suggests just how difficult it is to invent a vaccine, test it, pass regulatory scrutiny and ultimately produce a drug for the mass market. Thus, the World Health Organisation disclaims approval or endorsement of any product or entity mentioned in its "draft landscape" of Covid-19 candidate vaccines. The world body needs to stick to cautionary scientific evidence closely in a race in which the quest for fame and profit plays such an important part.

Competition is not bad in itself. Singapore, too, is making progress on this front. The first cohort of volunteers has been dosed with a vaccine developed jointly by Duke-NUS Medical School and United States pharmaceutical company Arcturus Therapeutics. Singaporeans await further news eagerly. Meanwhile, expectations of a medical prevention should not dilute social habits that citizens have developed since the disease cut a dreadful epidemiological and economic swathe through lives here. Safe distancing and other precautions must continue to guide behaviour.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2020, with the headline 'Race for a vaccine is not one of speed'. Subscribe