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Konstantin Hondros & Milena Leybold

Is an open source vaccine inside?

Just over a year ago, Milena Leybold and Leonhard Dobusch asked, Why is there no open-source vaccine against Covid-19? and discussed arguments why open-source vaccines are difficult to achieve. In March 2022, The Financial Times published an article by Donato Paolo Mancini, Jamie Smyth, and Joseph Cotterill asking Will ‘open-source’ vaccines narrow the inequality gap exposed by Covid? (behind a subscription barrier) and indicating that the landscape of open-source vaccines may have changed substantially.This blog post is thought of as a reply and extension to this very informative report that introduces mainly two organizations producing or aiming to produce open-source vaccines: Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines (Afrigen) and the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development (CVD with their vaccine Corbevax). For sure, Afrigen and CVD approach vaccine development, production, and distribution much more openly than most of the vaccines dominating the market. Still, it is unclear to what extent they should be considered as “open-source.” To clarify this topic, we scrutinize what an open-source vaccine ideally could be, to what degree Afrigen or CVD fit the ideals of open-source, and what other attempts for open-source vaccine alternatives are currently under development.

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The Covid-19 pandemic is, without doubt, one of the biggest societal challenges of our times. Since its outbreak in December 2019, more than 3 million people died due to or with a Covid-19 infection. The pandemic hits the world with disastrous side effects such as economies suffering from recurrent or constant lockdowns, children who can’t go to school, or rising case numbers of mentally ill people. The most promising solution to stop the pandemic: vaccination.

In December 2020, the first person got vaccinated with the officially authorized Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine “COMIRNATY” in UK and Russia started mass vaccination with the vaccine “Sputnik V”. Shortly after, other big pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna, Astrazeneca, Sinovac, or Johnson & Johnson managed to get marketing authorizations for their vaccines. However, the vaccination campaigns proceed slower than expected: the demand for vaccines exceeds the production capacities of the pharma companies. Further, vaccines are not globally distributed at comparable rates. Unequal access to vaccines is not just a matter of injustice but imbalances also increase the risk of mutations developing in non-vaccinated countries.

Overview of vaccination rates by April 28th, 2021 (the darker the more people got vaccinated)
Source: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/world/covid-vaccinations-tracker.html

In January 2021, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the imbalance of vaccine distribution as “a catastrophic moral failure” and asked countries of the Global North to lift intellectual property protections so that countries around the world could produce vaccines. Similarly, the People’s Vaccine Alliance proposes offering the Covid-19 vaccine as a common good:

Our best chance of all staying safe is to ensure a COVID-19 vaccine is available for all as a global common good. This will only be possible with a transformation in how vaccines are produced and distributed — pharmaceutical corporations must allow the COVID-19 vaccines to be produced as widely as possible by sharing their knowledge free from patents.
Instead they are protecting their monopolies and putting up barriers to restrict production and drive up prices, leaving us all in danger. No one company can produce enough for the whole world. So long as vaccine solutions are kept under lock and key, there won’t be enough to go around. We need a People’s Vaccine, not a profit vaccine.

https://peoplesvaccine.org

This raises the question of this blog post: wouldn’t it be possible to organize the development of an open source vaccine that could be produced and distributed all over the world? Fortunately, media articles and governmental statements provide us with a rich bunch of arguments, why this is not an option. Let’s have a look at those.

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The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
November 2022
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