Our country, with the myriad of problems in our healthcare system even before the pandemic, is simply not equipped to adequately deal with the possible harmful effects of these clinical trials on its Filipino participants. Alongside the questionable small-scale trials of the vaccine leading up to this point and the speed at which these trials were conducted (vaccines typically take years to develop), we have all the reasons not to participate, yet here we are, once again knocking on the door of quite probably another bad decision.
By JON BONIFACIO
Recent developments in the production of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) vaccines have spurred great interest in mainstream media as well as the general public — after all, particularly here in the Philippines, the much-awaited vaccine has been depicted repeatedly by the administration as the panacea for all the physical and social ills brought about by the pandemic. We must, however, take these assertions with a grain, if not a kilogram, of salt. As with anyone who tries to sell us a “solution to all our problems,” we must remain cautious lest we be shortchanged in the process.
It is definitely true that a vaccine, proven scientifically to be safe and effective, will help us recover from our present situation. Vaccines have played a big role in the eradication or near-eradication of diseases such as polio, smallpox, and various other diseases that had previously plagued humanity. There is broad consensus among scientists and medical professionals alike that vaccines, thoroughly tested and vetted, are good for humans. It would be an insult to scientific knowledge and theory itself to discount the historical achievements of vaccination, and the long-term benefits we as human beings enjoy because of these achievements. We can only expect that a safe, effective vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 will likewise be generally beneficial for humanity.
It is also true, however, that there is a darker side to vaccines, but these largely fall outside the scope of the strictly scientific or medical. We only need to recount the early experiments of vaccine pioneer Edward Jenner, who performed crude cowpox inoculations on a child, likely without sufficient informed consent or assent. Of course, experiments like Jenner’s would be frowned upon by the scientists of today, but these would not be deemed, strictly speaking in the language of today’s science, unscientific. We must recognize that in many ways that same problematic spirit still penetrates scientific practice in manners only discussion of larger social issues can illuminate.
The pursuit of a vaccine cannot be divorced from the profit orientation that dominates our world economy today. Clinical trials, which are essential for vaccine development, would be expensive if conducted in high-income countries with high standards of medical care; performing these trials in lower-income countries with low to no standard of medical care is one way to ensure profit. Of course, proponents try to justify that these populations would benefit in the long run, or that their specific genetic and environmental background will be accounted for by the science; however, the fact remains that the trial participants from these lower-income populations are at much higher risk of decreased quality of life than their would-be counterparts in high-income countries should the vaccine prove unsafe. And if the vaccine does work, because of the same profit orientation — alongside various other structural economic and political issues that deserve their own writeup altogether — these populations are usually unable to access the final product for one reason or another. It is no exaggeration that many feel like guinea pigs in these situations, and it is no leap of logic to compare the exploitation of these lower-income countries with the exploitation of the inoculated child in Jenner’s experiments.
It should worry us, then, that our president simply leapt at the opportunity to participate in the clinical trials for the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. Our country, with the myriad of problems in our healthcare system even before the pandemic, is simply not equipped to adequately deal with the possible harmful effects of these clinical trials on its Filipino participants. Alongside the questionable small-scale trials of the vaccine leading up to this point and the speed at which these trials were conducted (vaccines typically take years to develop), we have all the reasons not to participate, yet here we are, once again knocking on the door of quite probably another bad decision. There’s already plenty of that going around these days.
The pandemic has changed the world as we know it, and it’s certainly tempting to hop on the first train that promises a way out of this mess. But even if any of the candidate vaccines should work, there are still so many aspects that need to be considered. How will vaccines be distributed to the poorest and most marginalized sectors of our society? How can we ensure there will be enough vaccines for everyone? What will be the measures of safety for those who cannot afford the vaccine? How will these measures be implemented in the new normal?
We must recognize that these are fundamentally the same questions and issues we face in our current vaccine-less predicament. Replace the word “vaccine” in those questions with “mask,” or “face shield,” or, to be general about it, “resources for overall health and safety,” and it becomes obvious that our government officials, with their current plans of action, cannot easily answer these questions. Even before the pandemic, they could not easily answer these questions. With that said, can we really believe their narrative that a vaccine would be our ticket out of this crisis?
As for the general scientific enterprise, its longstanding problems cannot, of course, be fixed overnight. It will, however, certainly make a difference if scientists saw how the global economic and political landscape directly informs not only their methods in science, but also the problems they explore and, in many instances, the accepted solutions to these problems. Only in this way can the global science community begin to consciously make the effort to rectify its practices and pursue a science that genuinely puts people over profit.
* The author is a member of science advocacy organization Agham Youth, and chairperson of the Science and Technology Editors League of the Philippines (SENTINEL), an alliance of youth science-oriented publications. He is a magna cum laude graduate of BS Molecular Biology and Biotechnology from the University of the Philippines – Diliman.