Science after the pandemic: in search of our own vaccine | Translation
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This year-end, we’re going to take a break. But while we’re away, we want to share something with you that we know you’ll like. Over the next three weeks, we will be releasing episodes of our other podcast: El Hilo. If you’re not familiar with it yet, El Hilo provides context and analyzes in-depth the most important news in Latin America, the topics that we need someone to explain to us. That’s what El Hilo does every Friday.
Today’s episode is about the Latin American scientists who are working to prevent history from repeating itself, ensuring that another pandemic like COVID-19 doesn’t happen again.
Here’s the episode.
[Eliezer Budasoff]: This episode was made possible thanks to the support of Oxfam.
[Silvia Viñas]: Okay, today we’re going to start with a question, but for you: How often do you think about COVID? If you live in the United States or Europe, you may have heard about a resurgence of cases after the summer. Maybe you or a family member or a friend recently had COVID.
[Eliezer]: Perhaps you are dealing with long COVID, or you are wondering whether you need to get another dose of the vaccine soon. If you’re lucky, you live in a country that has already started or is planning a new vaccination campaign.
[Silvia]: Because even though for most of us the possibility of a new pandemic is not something that keeps us up at night, and COVID is no longer the threat it once was, the reality is that this virus is here to stay.
[Eliezer]: In May of this year, when the Director-General of the World Health Organization said that the public health emergency due to COVID-19 was over, he also warned:
[Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization]: …that does not mean COVID-19 is over as a global health threat.
[Eliezer]: … that doesn’t mean COVID-19 has stopped being a global threat.
[Silvia]: And weeks later, he said:
[Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization]: When the next pandemic comes knocking, and it will…
[Silvia]: … that when the next pandemic knocks on our door, and he assured that it will…
[Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization]: … we must be ready to answer decisively, collectively, and equitably.
[Silvia]: …we must be prepared to respond decisively, collectively, and equitably.
[Eliezer]: Fortunately, in Latin America, there are scientists who are thinking about this, especially about ensuring that for the next pandemic, we are not left behind in the race for a vaccine.
[Guillermo Docena]: What we need to do here is prevent, not cure. I mean, it’s much cheaper to prevent. That’s what vaccines are for: to prevent rather than cure or treat a sick person.
[Patrícia Neves]: Acho que precisamos fortalecer as parcerias regionais também entre nós.
[Laura Palomares]: By casting a region-wide look at ourselves, we can, I think, attain much bigger strengths.
[Eliezer]: Welcome to El Hilo, a podcast from Radio Ambulante Estudios. I’m Eliezer Budasoff.
[Silvia]: And I’m Silvia Viñas.
Today, the capabilities to develop vaccines in Latin America, which became visible during the pandemic, show us the opportunities and challenges that science faces in the region. And it reveals how prepared we are to face a similar crisis.
[Silvia]: To understand how vaccine development has progressed in the region since the pandemic and how prepared we are for a new health emergency, we spoke with three scientists. You heard their voices a few minutes ago.
[Laura]: I’m Laura Palomares, the director of the Institute of Biotechnology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
[Eliezer]: Also known as UNAM.
[Guillermo]: Well, I’m Guillermo Docena. I’m a biochemist and an immunologist.
[Silvia]: He is also the principal researcher of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council, CONICET, which is the state institution that brings together about 12,000 scientists in Argentina.
[Guillermo]: So, well, I basically work on topics related to immunology.
[Patrícia]: Meu nome é Patrícia Neves, eu sou biomédica, imunologista, trabalho em Bio-Manguinhos, na Fiocruz, uma instituição ligada ao Ministério da Saúde do Brasil, no Rio de Janeiro, onde eu moro.
[Eliezer]: And Dr. Patrícia Neves is a biomedical scientist and immunologist who works at the Bio-Manguinhos Institute of Fiocruz Foundation, the main agency in Brazil for vaccine research and development.
[Silvia]: We spoke with them because Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil are regional leaders in vaccine development.
[Eliezer]: Let’s start with Dr. Laura Palomares. We had talked to her before, three years ago, when we wondered about the challenges faced by Latin American scientists to avoid falling behind in the race for a coronavirus vaccine.
[Silvia]: Now, when we talked to her again, and with Guillermo and Patrícia, we realized that, of the three vaccines these scientists started developing, Laura’s has undergone the most changes.
[Eliezer]: Laura and her team at UNAM began developing a coronavirus vaccine in 2020. When they started this work, the pandemic was just beginning in Mexico, and there were only a few cases.
[Silvia]: When we first spoke to her in July 2020, her team was in the animal testing phase. However, they never anticipated that the high infection rates would create so many virus variants. And that abundance of variants affected the design of their vaccine.
[Laura]: So we abandoned that approach and started working with two other possible prototypes, where we are now looking for a pan-coronavirus vaccine. That means one that can protect against the coronaviruses we know and hopefully future ones as well. We still maintain the original goal, but in a different circumstance and at a different pace.
[Eliezer]: The change in the work pace is something that is common in all three countries because, of course, we are no longer in an emergency. And that brings several challenges that we will discuss later.
[Silvia]: But let’s continue with the case of Argentina, which is a bit different from Mexico’s because, among other reasons, when the pandemic started, Dr. Guillermo Docena had already been developing a therapeutic vaccine for treating food allergies for a decade. In other words, it reverses or eliminates allergies.
[Eliezer]: In 2020, when the clinical trials for COVID vaccines were announced, Guillermo and his team realized that…
[Guillermo]: Those vaccines that were working, and later it was confirmed that they worked during the pandemic, produced the same mechanisms that our vaccine was producing.
[Silvia]: In other words, their therapeutic vaccine for treating food allergies did the same thing as some COVID vaccines. Both activate the immune system, causing it to react and reverse inflammation.
[Guillermo]: So, in January 2021, when the COVID vaccines had already been approved, we decided to apply our vaccine to develop our own COVID vaccine.
[Eliezer]: They named it Argenvac.
[Guillermo]: Well, since 2021, it’s been two years, we’ve been studying this vaccine, and we’re in the final stage of validating it. We are about to move on to a clinical trial, meaning in human volunteers.
[Patrícia]: É lógico que, como todos os outros pesquisadores no mundo, durante a pandemia, nós pensamos em adaptar o nosso projeto para desenvolver uma vacina para a covid.
[Eliezer]: Dr. Patrícia Neves, in Brazil, also adapted a vaccine project she was working on when COVID-19 appeared.
[Silvia]: Shortly before the pandemic, Patrícia was working on a vaccine for breast cancer by using a molecule called messenger RNA. This is the same technology for which two scientists have just won the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
[Patrícia]: Ela é uma tecnologia muito versátil e que permite o desenvolvimento de vacinas de forma muito acelerada.
[Eliezer]: Patrícia told us that it is a very versatile technology that allows for rapid vaccine development. Most vaccines use a part of the virus to stimulate the immune system to create antibodies. But this type of vaccine works differently.
[Silvia]: Instead of the virus, they use the messenger RNA molecule, which prompts our body to produce a viral protein, eliminating the need to inject the virus. It’s cheaper and simpler because it uses synthetic RNA, and there’s no need to maintain live cultures in a laboratory.
[Eliezer]: By October 2020, it was evident that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which were using messenger RNA, would work. So Patrícia and her team decided to try the same approach. They took the messenger RNA from the breast cancer project to make a vaccine against COVID.
[Silvia]: But there was a problem. Introducing messenger RNA into the human body requires a complex methodology that only a few scientists in the world can perform. For that, Patrícia called her best friend, Dr. Ana Paula Ano Bom.
[Patrícia]: Ana Paula já vinha trabalhando no desenvolvimento de cápsulas de RNM e de silenciamento mesmo antes da pandemia…
[Eliezer]: Ana Paula had already been working with this molecule since before the pandemic, so she joined the team without hesitation. Later, the project received support from the WHO as part of an initiative for low- and middle-income countries to develop this technology. In Latin America, only two institutes were chosen: Patrícia’s in Brazil and another in Argentina.
[Patrícia]: Os nossos principais obstáculos foram as patentes. Nós tivemos todo um cuidado para não infringir as patentes que estão depositadas.
[Silvia]: Patrícia told us that one of the main obstacles to develop this vaccine has been obtaining patents. In the pharmaceutical industry, when a new drug is developed, it is patented so that no one else can manufacture it. This is what companies like Pfizer and Moderna did. They refused to share their patents and the step-by-step process for manufacturing messenger RNA vaccines against COVID.
[Eliezer]: So Patrícia’s team had to be careful not to infringe existing patents, and had to look for alternatives that could be used and were affordable for Brazil and other countries in the region.
[Silvia]: But this obstacle led Patrícia and Ana Paula to make a decision: If their team manages to manufacture this new vaccine, they will share both the patent and the manufacturing process with the whole world.
[Patrícia]: E é um propósito muito claro, meu e da Ana Paula. E a gente trabalha por um ideal. Não é por dinheiro, é por um ideal.
[Eliezer]: Patrícia told us that their purpose is very clear. They are working for an ideal, not for money.
[Silvia]: As for Guillermo, he has also faced various obstacles in Argentina, but they have been different.
[Guillermo]: The main impediment was importing the materials or reagents we needed. Nowadays, in Argentina, it’s very complicated. If you want to import and buy something from abroad, it takes between six and eight months. So, for now, I would say that the most important obstacle that has delayed this project by a year has been the time it takes to receive reagents from abroad.
[Eliezer]: Plus, there’s the issue of inflation, the highest in three decades. So much so that, at this point in 2023, the country’s inflation has already exceeded 100%.
[Guillermo]: And, well, since the subsidies are in pesos and purchases are in dollars, every time the peso devalues, we have less money for research. So today we have two problems: funds and time. But still, we move forward.
[Silvia]: Funding has also been an obstacle for Laura in Mexico. Initially, there was no financing or support program for vaccine development in the country. The original vaccine project against COVID started with some savings the lab had accumulated, but that sum ran out very quickly. They were able to continue thanks to a donation from the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation.
[Laura]: Initially, we had a group of 20 people, mostly students who left their original projects, and several people we had hired on a project basis. A big limitation in general for universities, not just UNAM, is that the number of available job openings is limited.
[Eliezer]: The fewer people involved in the project, the slower the progress.
[Laura]: At the moment, we don’t have resources to hire personnel, and those working on vaccine development are students with scholarships, two Ph.D. students, but the pace of work is, of course, different.
[Silvia]: In other words, they went from having a team of 20 to two Ph.D. students and two scientists who are permanent staff. The pace is different because the primary goal has basically changed. The main goal is no longer to develop a vaccine but to conduct research and train students. Laura told us that the creation of a vaccine has taken a back seat.
[Laura]: Because, originally, we had already worked on everything related to the possibility of manufacturing batches for humans. And at the moment, we are not working under those conditions but in the conditions of a research laboratory, where everything is documented in logs, but not with the same rigor or to the same detail as when you are going to manufacture for human use.
[Eliezer]: Another challenge when manufacturing vaccines is brain drain: scientists migrating because they find better opportunities abroad. This phenomenon has affected the region’s health systems for decades. When colleagues leave, it also demotivates the scientists who stay, perpetuating the dependency that the region has on developed countries.
[Silvia]: According to The Fund for Peace, the brain drain has had the most impact on development and the economy in Haiti, Venezuela, Brazil, Guatemala, and Honduras this year. Laura has experienced this in Mexico:
[Laura]: Several of our former students work in the United States on manufacturing development, process development, not only for vaccines but other drugs as well. In Mexico, particularly, the youth doesn’t see dedicating themselves to science or biotechnology as a promising future. We also don’t have enough researchers. The critical mass of researchers in Mexico, given the country’s size, is not sufficient according to international standards. So all of this results in a bottleneck for obtaining highly trained personnel. Another issue is that, since we manufacture very few vaccines here in Mexico, obviously there are very few people with the required experience in manufacturing.
[Silvia]: It’s important to mention that Mexico was an important vaccine producer for decades. This changed in 1998, when production declined. Now, Mexico only produces two vaccines: one against influenza and another against hepatitis B.
[Eliezer]: However, that experience was valuable during the COVID emergency. Mexico bottled three vaccines: AstraZeneca, Sputnik, and CanSino. In practice, this means that the country received bulk doses of the vaccine, bottled them in glass vials, and then packaged them for distribution.
[Silvia]: Agreements to bottle those vaccines were made between the public and private sectors, allowing Mexico to depend less on other countries to receive sufficient doses to vaccinate its population. Furthermore, these agreements were crucial for Mexico to be able to distribute vaccines to other countries in the region. For example, they partnered with Argentina to distribute to countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
[Laura]: All these projects are training people, but they are still not enough to meet the need for highly trained engineers and biotechnologists with experience in manufacturing vaccines for human use.
[Silvia]: The project being carried out by Laura and her team at UNAM in Mexico is not the only one in Mexico. There are other vaccine candidates. In 2021, the Mexican government promised that, by the end of the year, Mexico would have a vaccine developed by local scientists.
[AMLO]: We are going to suggest that our vaccine be called Patria. We have already reserved the name.
[Eliezer]: But that didn’t happen. The Patria vaccine, named by Mexico’s president himself, took more time to materialize. In May of this year, the government announced that the vaccine was ready and would be used to provide booster shots to the population. Recently, it was announced that in the upcoming COVID vaccination campaign, which will happen this month, October, there could be limited doses of this vaccine.
[Laura]: I think it was, in general, a bit naive of this country to assure that we would have a Mexican vaccine by such and such a year, because the path to developing vaccines is very long. We thought that, because of what happened with Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca, having such a rapid development is common, but that’s not the case. And when you are no longer in an emergency situation, things change.
[Silvia]: In Argentina, the vaccine Guillermo is working on is not the only one. There are four other projects. The most advanced vaccine is called Arvac, and it is in phase three, meaning it will be tested on hundreds of people.
[Guillermo]: It has finished recruiting volunteers. It started a year before us, in March 2020, and, well, that vaccine is working very well and will be the first in Argentina to have completed a clinical phase entirely in our country. So that is very important information.
[Eliezer]: Guillermo doesn’t say this just for the scientific development of the country.
[Guillermo]: One might think now that the pandemic is under control, that the vaccine will no longer be necessary from now on. That’s not really the case because this virus is here to stay.
[Silvia]: Moreover, Guillermo mentions that thanks to these projects, Argentina now has a vaccine production capability it didn’t have before. And of course, this could be crucial in the future.
[Guillermo]: Well, both Arvac and our vaccine leave us with facilities that will be usable for the production of other vaccines. So that is something we didn’t have before the pandemic, and it is a capacity that will remain for the future. So surely, at some point, we will face another epidemic or pandemic, and, well, we will already have a good part of the system or structure resolved.
[Silvia]: After the break: Under what conditions did Latin America meet the pandemic? And how prepared is the region for a similar emergency in the future?
[Eliezer]: We’ll be right back.
[Silvia]: We’re back on El Hilo.
[Eliezer]: The arrival of COVID in Latin America exposed the region’s structural problems. The virus magnified what had long been visible to everyone: lack of access to health care, overcrowding, insufficient health structures, poverty.
[Guillermo]: And we know that in more vulnerable societies or populations, any respiratory infection has a greater impact than in a population that is well-nourished, well-vaccinated, well-cared-for, well-isolated, etcetera… So here in Argentina, that has had a very large effect.
[Silvia]: But this is not only in Argentina. More than a third of Latin Americans live in poverty. And over 60% of people experiencing hunger in the region are in South America.
[Eliezer]: These factors created a perfect storm for the region to face the pandemic poorly.
[Silvia]: But for Laura, there’s another important factor: the meager attention given to science.
[Laura]: Sadly, in Mexico, scientific knowledge is not valued or not valued as it should be.
[Silvia]: Laura says it suffices to see what happened in the country’s Congress in mid-September.
[Jaime Maussan]: They are non-human beings, not part of our earthly evolution; and after they disappear, there is no subsequent evolution.
[Eliezer]: Jaime Maussan, a ufologist and journalist, stood in front of the Mexican Congress and presented two preserved bodies of supposed extraterrestrials. The Mexican scientific community, including UNAM, debunked Maussan’s theory, who has long been labeled by scientists as a charlatan.
[Silvia]: In addition, during a press conference, they expressed embarrassment with the government for allowing this man to ridicule and discredit the country’s scientific objectivity.
[Laura]: Well, it’s clear that science is not recognized or valued as it should be. So I think that putting knowledge and technological development at the forefront has benefits that have not been recognized in my country, nor, I fear,in other countries in Latin America. In large part because we don’t have money, right? It’s a vicious circle that could become a virtuous circle. But it does take determination for that to happen.
[Eliezer]: The attitudes of some governments, like Jair Bolsonaro’s in Brazil, also had serious consequences on people’s health. And they caused some countries that could have performed better to fail.
[Patrícia]: So, we went through quite a difficult period as regards politics, with all this issue of fake news in the press. The RNP vaccine was one of the most affected by this fake news…
[Silvia]: Patrícia told us that they went through very difficult times politically, especially due to misinformation in the press, particularly against vaccines. It’s worth noting that much of this information was promoted by the government. Bolsonaro even mocked people wearing masks. The politicisation of the pandemic has become widespread.
[Laura]: It has become political to wear or not wear face masks, right? It has become political to get vaccinated or not. I mean, it’s a general issue where we prioritize politics over scientific knowledge and health for reasons that are really hard to understand, right? It’s not only in Latin America; in the United States, there’s also this movement that no longer has to do with health but is related to political affiliation.
[Patrícia]: Given the political scenario, we came out well.
[Silvia]: However, despite this, Patrícia believes that Brazil avoided a worse outcome due to the strength of its public institutions, especially those involved in vaccine production.
[Patrícia]: Because we have institutions like Fiocruz and the Butantan Institute, another Brazilian public institute. It was through the commitment of these institutions that we still managed to have a good situation in terms of vaccines.
[Silvia]: Although Brazil did not end up developing its own vaccine, like Mexico, it was able to use its experience to produce millions of doses of the Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines.
[Eliezer]: Guillermo is not far from this standpoint and also emphasizes the importance of having strong institutions. In Argentina’s case, he says that the work of the Ministry of Health was fundamental.
[Guillermo]: In everything related to defining policies, organizing, importing vaccines, etc. It may have had its mistakes, like in all countries, and, well, if what used to happen in previous years had occurred, or what some presidential candidates are now promising, that the National Ministry of Health should not exist, I really don’t know how this would have been organized.
[Silvia]: Eliminating ministries, including the Ministry of Health, is one of the proposals of Javier Milei, who is one of the favored candidates to win the presidential elections on October 22.
[Eliezer]: Guillermo thinks that would be a tremendous mistake, especially considering a future pandemic.
[Guillermo]: I really don’t know how the pandemic would have unfolded in Argentina without, let’s say, a director of health policies, which, I tell you, whether they are good or bad, the important thing here is that someone makes decisions and defines a policy. And then, whether it is good or bad, it can be corrected.
[Eliezer]: Milei also said he wants to privatize CONICET, the institution where Guillermo works.
[Patrícia]: So it is important that Brazil and the countries of Latin America defend their institutions because, in the end, they are the ones capable of serving the population in those emergency situations.
[Silvia]: For Patrícia, one of the most important lessons is that Latin American countries must defend their institutions, as they are the only ones capable of serving the population in an emergency.
[Eliezer]: Unfortunately, for Laura, the government has learned little. She believes that Mexico entered 2020 in the same situation as in 2009, when the H1N1 pandemic paralyzed the country, causing deep economic losses and thousands of infections. While the situation is somewhat better now, Laura says that the population, not the politicians, learned more from this second crisis.
[Laura]: Fortunately, the general population became more aware of their power, both to protect themselves by using face masks and to protect others. And I think… I hope that that awareness will endure for several generations. Still, at a strategic level, I don’t see any changes.
[Guillermo]: My doubt is whether politicians have learned in this pandemic as scientists or the general population have learned. It probably will take many years, many decades, for the population to be aware that science provides independence and sovereignty to a country. At this moment, I believe that in Argentina, although much has been learned, I don’t know to what extent people are truly aware of that.
[Silvia]: What everyone agrees on, Guillermo, Patrícia, and Laura, is that Latin America needs to become self-sufficient in health matters.
[Eliezer]: There was a global race to achieve an effective vaccine, but also to hoard those same vaccines. As we know, the wealthiest countries won that race. And this ended up revealing our region’s need to produce vaccines, treatments, and supplies locally.
[Silvia]: But for this, everyone agrees that Latin America must unite and start thinking as a bloc.
[Guillermo]: It is very important for the development of vaccines or medicines to have collaboration between countries. For example, if Argentina manages to develop a COVID vaccine, it should be a priority for the region. If another country needs a vaccine and doesn’t have access, and Argentina has it, that is the policy at least with our vaccine, right? To use it in our population but also in the region.
[Eliezer]: Initiatives like these, where Latin America thinks as a bloc, have been seen in the past and could be replicated. In 2015, for example, UNASUR members created a database of drug prices. The idea was simple: share the prices at which pharmaceutical companies offered these drugs in order to reduce costs for everyone.
[Patrícia]: So it is very clear that both Fiocruz and Butantan in Brazil, and other institutes in other Latin American countries, and other companies, have great production capacity, great competence in the production area. But we still depend on technology transfers that other companies in developed countries are willing to make to us.
[Eliezer]: Patrícia finds it very clear that Latin American institutes have a great productive capacity. According to her, the problem is that the region still depends on foreign multinational companies to be willing to make technology transfers to our countries.
[Silvia]: By “technology transfers,” Patrícia refers to multinational companies sending documentation and raw materials to companies, governments, or public entities so that they can replicate it in their region. It’s like a recipe, for example, on how to manufacture a certain vaccine. During the pandemic, Fiocruz signed a technology transfer agreement with AstraZeneca to produce its vaccine in Brazil.
[Patrícia]: And what we need now to be truly independent is to develop the capacity to develop our own products. It’s not easy. It’s challenging.
[Silvia]: What Patrícia says is needed now for independence is that Latin America gain the capacity to develop its own products, because obtaining this type of knowledge and putting it into practice is a way for our countries to prepare for the next pandemic.
[Silvia]: It’s challenging to determine at this moment how prepared the region is to respond to a new emergency in the future. Currently, several countries worldwide are working on a Pandemic Treaty to improve prevention, preparation, and response to future emergencies. However, Latin America has limited participation in the negotiations and is participating as a bloc with the United States and Canada—countries with very different realities.
[Eliezer]: Despite this, some scientists, like Guillermo, prefer to be optimistic.
[Guillermo]: I believe that the region will be better prepared than it was in this pandemic because there are many things we now know we have to do and others we know we shouldn’t do. While the pandemic requires the development of vaccines or treatments, many groups, I believe, continue working, and capacities have been retained from the effort in production. So, if there is another pandemic at some point, it won’t be the same, and there will be a more immediate response. However, everything will depend on funding, on having resources.
[Silvia]: Currently, the Argenvac vaccine, which Guillermo is working on, is in the pre-clinical phase, and they hope it will be available next year, although they don’t have a specific date yet. For her part, Patrícia hopes that her vaccine will be ready and registered by 2025.
[Mariana Zúñiga]: This episode was produced by me, with support/help from Nausícaa Palomeque. It was edited by Daniela Cruzat, Silvia, and Eliezer. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. The mix, sound design, and music are by Elías González.
The rest of the El Hilo team includes Analía Llorente, Samantha Proaño, Paola Alean, Juan David Naranjo Navarro, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Natalia Ramírez, and Desirée Yépez. Daniel Alarcón is our editorial director. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO of Radio Ambulante Estudios. Our music theme was composed by Pauchi Sasaki.
El Hilo is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios. If you value independent and rigorous journalism about Latin America, we invite you to join our memberships. By donating, you will be contributing directly to keeping El Hilo reporting on our region. Visit: elhilo.audio/apoyanos
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I am Mariana Zúñiga. Thank you for listening.