Chapter 3: Vaccine nationalism

“Vaccine nationalism” is the final topic of Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong’s discussion with Shabir Madhi, a Johannesburg-based virologist who led South Africa’s trials of the AstraZeneca-Oxford coronavirus vaccine.

Madhi’s team of investigators found that the vaccine did not protect against mild to moderate cases of the variant now predominant in South Africa, leading the government to announce that it would stop distribution of the vaccine. The news was a setback for the country, where more than 47,000 people have died of COVID-19 as of mid-February, and a new variant is driving a surge of cases.

South Africa acquired the doses from a manufacturer based in India, at prices exceeding what other African countries and countries in Europe have arranged. South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has also complained that wealthier countries are holding onto stockpiles of the vaccine while his country pursues a patchwork of deals with manufacturers and relies on COVAX, a group distributing vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. Ramaphosa has called for collaboration between countries and an end to what he and others refer to as “vaccine nationalism.”

Professor Shabir Madhi is the dean of faculty of health sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and director of the university’s Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit. He is also co-director of the African Local Initiative for Vaccinology Expertise, a program dedicated to increasing vaccine research activity in Africa.

Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is a surgeon and scientist who has spent his career studying the human immune system to fight cancer and infectious disease. Last year, Soon-Shiong’s company, ImmunityBio, received permission from the Food and Drug Administration to begin Phase 1 trials of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate. The company has also received approval to begin trials in South Africa, where a new variant of the virus has led to a sudden rise in cases.