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COVID vaccine: "Billion Dollar Baby" and money in asphalt

Photo: Ali Raza/Pixabay

Photo: Ali Raza/Pixabay

Ukraine has actually rolled into asphalt a chance for its COVID vaccine

Ukraine will not be able to develop its own medication while funding is the same as it is now.

About a year ago, when the coronavirus was just approaching Ukraine, President Zelenskyy promised a million dollars to anyone who would create a vaccine against COVID. But the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca received a hundred times more from US structures alone and soon boasted of the result. In Ukraine, no one has showed up for the presidential million. Why this is so and whether we will have our own vaccine—more on that in this article.


Three stages for a vaccine

First of all, let's clarify one point. A vaccine is created in the laboratory, so to speak, in a single sample. It is also called "a prototype". For a prototype to become, in fact, a vaccine, it needs to be replicated. But even before replication, that is, before industrial output, the drug must be checked and tested.

This process can be compared to the invention of something else, any mechanism. First, there is brainstorming, and the idea that was born is embodied in the design product, then it is tested, then it goes into mass production. It's the same with the vaccine. The only difference is responsibility. If you develop a new vacuum cleaner and the invention fails, you are not putting a million lives in jeopardy.

Therefore, providing clinical research is no less important than finding bright minds capable of creating a life-saving drug. And this is also not a cheap task. The Lancet magazine, known throughout the medical world, has estimated the vaccine production cycle at between $1.2 and 8.4 billion.

At once we will notice, as a spoiler: Ukrainian scientists don't have that kind of money and are unlikely to ever have it. Therefore, Ukraine will not be able to go through the entire cycle, no matter how much the profile Minister Stepanov claims otherwise. But local biologists and biochemists are able, at least, to provide the first stage of creating a vaccine: the invention of a prototype. And they really succeeded in this.

Our prototype

A prototype of a vaccine has already been created in Ukraine, the Chairman of the Commission on Biosafety and Biosecurity at the National Security and Defense Council, Director of the Palladin Institute of Biochemistry of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine Serhiy Komisarenko told the media outlet Glavkom. The next stage would have to be testing. But there are no funds for this.

In China, there was a different problem: there was enough money, but not enough test persons. According to Komisarenko, that is why CoronaVac was studied in other countries—Brazil, Indonesia, Arab countries, and Turkey.

The problem with testing has not yet been resolved, but the next one is already visible behind it. In particular, the Commission under the NSDC has conducted an analysis of enterprises, and in Ukraine there are none yet adapted specifically for the production of vaccines. However, those that do exist could be readjusted—although it will not be cheap.

Meanwhile, the Institute of Biochemistry is engaged in very important research that could be of great benefit.

It is about this: the coronavirus, that consists of RNA, must be "packed" into something when creating a vaccine.

Moderna and Pfizer use a lipid capsule for this. But, as Komisarenko explains, lipids themselves can be immunogenic, that is, cause an immune response in the body.

Therefore, Ukrainian scientists are still determining which lipids could be used with the greatest effect and least harm.

"We raised funds ourselves"

But lipid research is of little concern to the Ukrainian authorities. There are no funds even for genetic sequencing of the coronavirus. Sequencing, in the simplest terms, is the decomposition of a virus into its components, the search for its differences (mutations) from the strains already described.

Hanna Gerashchenko, Doctor of Biological Sciences, Leading Research Associate at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, told The Page that the sequencing program was approved by both the NSDC and the Ministry of Health, but did not receive funding.

«We applied for the study of 500 samples, with a total cost of approximately 9 million UAH, and were ready to carry out the first sequencing already in summer, subject to the availability of funding. We have modern equipment, we are a state profile organization for genetic research, we have qualified specialists. But the government decided to send samples for research abroad: to Germany that operates on the basis of the Charité clinic, and to a specialized laboratory in the UK.»

Hanna Gerashchenko

Hanna Gerashchenko

Leading Research Associate at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine

According to her, these laboratories are now under a very heavy workload due to the coronavirus rapid mutations, so it is impossible to quickly get sequencing results from there.

Quote"You have to wait at least a month—month and a half. We talked about this and offered to do it faster. But at that time no one heard us," says Gerashchenko.

As time went on, the world was talking about new strains of coronavirus, but the Institute of Molecular Biology continued to wait for funding. In the end, the employees themselves raised about 1 million UAH for the purchase of the necessary reagents. This happened when the disease outbreak began in Ivano-Frankivsk.

"Although it was very difficult, the Director of our Institute managed to accumulate this amount and purchase reagents and materials," the Doctor of Sciences notes.

A million dollars from President Zelenskyy would be very helpful in this situation, but it is clear that no one gave it to scientists.

Where's the money?

Actually, based on the amount defined by the Lancet as the required minimum ($1.2 billion), then there was such money in Ukraine. After all, in the spring of 2020, the filling of the fund to fight coronavirus amounted to UAH64.7 billion. All this was funds transferred from the state budget, and there were also receipts from numerous international organizations and foreign sponsors.

Let’s divide 64.7 by 28 (the "ballpark" dollar rate)—and we get almost $2.3 billion. With such an estimate in hand, developing a vaccine could be started. Or at least financing the sequencing of the genetic material of new coronavirus strains. But no. This money went to no one knows where.

Actually, it is known. On June 18, 2020, the Parliament adopted the draft law No. 3509 expanding the list of areas for spending the coronavirus fund. The funds were spent on "improving transport communications, construction, reconstruction, full and running medium repairs of public highways of national importance." The amount involved was 35 billion UAH. That is, most of the costs for COVID were simply rolled into asphalt.

There were others, also by no means related to the epidemic, expenses. In particular, the Ministry of Internal Affairs knocked out additional funds for itself in the amount of 2.7 billion UAH. They were spent to the needs of the police, rescuers, border guards, and national guards who worked during the quarantine.

And what about foreign receipts?—you might ask. Last year they were both plentiful and generous. For example, a loan of $150 million was received from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, of which only $50 million were spent to fight against coronavirus (and where the other 100 million were spent—history is silent about this). But this was only the first tranche from the IBRD. From the nexton—of 135 million—also only part of the loan, namely $35 million, was received by the coronavirus fund.

There were other donators as well. Let's say, the European Union. The European Commission has allocated to Ukraine "free and irrevocable aid" in the total amount of 190 million euros. Another $165 million was transferred to us by the UNO, $40 million—by the WHO. The question of where all these amounts have evaporated is a rhetorical one. The IMF intends to check the costs of the fight against coronavirus, so we will not do someone else's work.

In conclusion

But if Ukraine cannot produce its own vaccine, what are the options available to our state? There are only two of them. The first one is outsourcing, the second one is the packaging of the ready-made vaccine.

Outsourcing in this case means the use of existing technologies, and packaging—the use of ready-made dosage forms. For example, Albania followed the path of packaging. The country signed a contract with Pfizer and BioNTech, starting mass vaccinations in early January this year.

As for outsourcing, at the beginning of the year, the Kharkiv pharmaceutical company Lekhim announced that in the Q1 of 2022 it would launch the production of the Sinovac Biotech coronavirus vaccine at its own facilities. And meanwhile, Lekhim is supplying 5 million doses of the ready-made CoronaVac vaccine to Ukraine in pursuance of an agreement with the State Enterprise Medical Procurement of Ukraine.

The start of the production line will cost Lekhim hundreds of millions of dollars, but the company has big plans for the future. Together with Sinovac Biotech, it intends to organize a full cycle of production of other vaccines—against influenza and poliomyelitis. And that is great, but it will take a long time to get the coronavirus vaccine.

Therefore, our state is following its usual, that is, an irrational path: it buys ready-made drugs abroad. The next in turn is the product of the American pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer. Its supply is reported by the Office of the President. However, this information is questioned by the State Enterprise Medical Procurement of Ukraine.

According to the Head of the SE Arsen Zhumadilov, this is a framework agreement, that is, the intention to negotiate further. Under such deals, not a single vaccine has been purchased in the world, Zhumadilov claims.

Therefore, the Ukrainians are left with one of two things: either to be vaccinated by CoviShield that is available in the country (licensed production of this vaccine AstraZeneca transferred to the Serum Institute of India) or wait for Lekhim to start production of CoronaVac. The third option—with Pfizer—should, apparently, be classified as utopian.

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