Cristina Azevedo (Fiocruz News Agency)
The pandemic brought challenges, but also opportunities, according to lecturers on the 6th annual Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology, and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), also known as the STI Forum. In Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic, the forum’s first session, on Tuesday May 4th, specialists on the fields of sciences, technology and economics analyzed the scenario and looked for ways to recover and prevent a new global sanitation crisis. Among them was the President of Fiocruz, Nísia Trindade Lima. The Foundation was also present through Paulo Gadelha’s, the coordinator of Fiocruz’s Strategy for the 2030 Agenda (EFA 2030), organization of a collateral event Vaccines: a case for science, society, and political interactions of STI (Sciences, Technology, and Innovation) for the SDG.
“Many governing authorities talk about the unprecedented nature of the pandemic by comparing it to the Spanish flu, at the beginning of the last century. But today we have important scientific and technological resources” Nísia pointed out, emphasizing that the access to those resources is unequal, though. The president of Fiocruz reinforced the relationship between the 2030 Agenda and the pandemic. She highlighted the need to reinforce universal health care to face those challenges; the importance of STI to a new perspective on public health; and argued that actions should be planned taking sustainability into consideration.
“Whilst it [the pandemic] represents a huge opportunity to use technology to help society and the planet,” said Nisia. She also pointed out the challenges that the world must face on the next decade, such as long-lasting inequalities, demographic issues, relating to biotechnology and information, and related to democratic crisis. “Dealing with these challenges requires a strategic series of commitments to reduce the imbalance among countries.”
Moderated by the Senior Director of the US National Academies of Sciences, Vaughan Turekian, the panel also had specialists such as the Wellcome Trust’s Director, Jeremy James Farrar, who thinks that transnational challenges created by COVID-19 require a coordinated response, with science being the main part of the resolution. The Coordinator of the Global Center of Excellence and International Cooperation for Creative Economy, Dina Dellyana, presented a piece of work created in Indonesia to help entrepreneurs deal with the negative impact of the pandemic.
The Deputy Secretary-General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Ulrik Vestergaard Knudsen, emphasized that although the pandemic created the largest economical, sanitary and social crisis ever seen in current times, there was also an “unprecedented research sharing”. He also pointed out that the organization released on January a document focusing on opportunities in sciences, technology, and innovation, determining the key areas to be discussed and asking governments to reconsider their politics, especially when it comes to STI, that might require a more direct action to approach to face crisis like the pandemic in the future.
On the collateral conference about vaccines, produced by EFA 2030, the International Science Council (ISC) and the Global Sustainable Technology & Innovation Conference (G-STIC), that happened on May the 3rd, the idea was to touch the subject with a broader perspective, Paulo Gadelha explained. “The fight against Covid-19 became a display window of importance and controversy. It was possible to obtain the vaccines in a single year due to national innovation convergence, genomic and epidemiologic data sharing, and significant funding from the government, multilateral agencies, and private companies. On the negative side, there is a vaccine war lead by profit-seeking in contrast to worldwide compassion and vaccines becoming a public asset”, said Gadelha.
Addressing Vaccination in the Global South, Fiocruz’s Vice-President of Production and Innovation in Health, Marco Krieger, highlighted that it isn’t only about scientific progress, but also about inequalities. “Economically developed countries are able to get larger amounts of vaccines in relation to its population than us in Latin America and Africa. This can become a problem to everyone”, he said, referencing China, United States, India, United Kingdom and Brazil as nations that were able to mobilize its local production to this end.
“There is an imbalance in the local production capacity. And Brazil is in a privileged position since it was able to mobilize the production in its public institutes, that have a tradition in supporting the National Immunization Program (PNI)”. Krieger emphasized that this year Fiocruz should deliver 100 million vaccine doses produced with an imported Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient and 100 million more doses produced with a local Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient, in a partnership with AstraZeneca/Oxford University. Altogether, 26 million doses have been delivered already. Among the challenges, he highlighted the need to connect the genomic monitoring, that detects lineages of SARS-CoV-2, for instance, digital monitoring, that gathers data about cases and hospital beds, and a third kind of monitoring, immunological — about the impact of virus lineages in the immune response of vaccinated people and convalescents.
“Success for science, failure for politics”
Stuart Blum, in turn, stated “a notable success for science and a failure for politics” in the pandemic. The emeritus professor of sciences and technology studies at the University of Amsterdam pointed out that a lot of the issues we face today were foreseen, but “people were not really interested in hearing the warnings”.
In the recent history of the vaccination policy, he mentioned two previous stages. The 60s and the 70s were regarded as the “golden age of vaccination sciences and technology”, as well as the vaccination policy: with the support of the World Health Organization (WHO), immunization was brought to countries that didn’t have it before. “East and West worked together to eradicate smallpox, in spite of the Cold War. Both public and private sector worked together in the interests of public health”, said Blum, who wrote books about the subject.
He pointed out a change in attitude in the 80s, with the “age of the start of globalization, the fall of the Soviet Union and the growing dominance of neoliberalism”, in which vaccines were seen as a source of profit. “What used to be knowledge to be shared became private intellectual property protected by patents”, he stated. Blum criticizes the excessive faith in vaccines, stressing the vaccines alone can’t ensure the return to normality.
To the CEO of the International Science Council (ISC), Heide Hackmann, COVID-19 brought Sciences to the spotlight unprecedentedly. “The pandemic was like an acute alarm for the international community. It is the biggest international sanitation emergency, it is an existential cascade with the anthropogenic destruction of the life support system”, she said.
ISC did a research gathering specialists from all over the world, creating scenarios for the next three to five years, going from best to worst. In the best scenario, vaccines are effective against virus lineages, there’s an effective viral control around the world; the majority of the population is vaccinated; and the virus becomes endemic, not being decisive to international decision making. In the worst scenario, the appearance of lineages that go through the immunological system; only the rich countries can produce and buy vaccines; the disease impacts how countries operate their health and work system, social life, and politics.
“We try to understand the challenges and hope that the administrators are ready to face them”, said Ines Hassan, Senior Projects Manager of ISC. “And that strategic policies come to promote positive results. It goes beyond SDG 3 Good Health and Well-being.”
Jennifer Reich, Sociology Professor at Colorado University at Denver, noted that adults being hesitant about a vaccine is not something that started with Covid-19 and that it is something that happened in other campaigns, such as the Influenza Campaign, that had a participation of less than 45%. She split the population between the ones who absolutely refuse to take the vaccine, the ones who would take it without any problems and the hesitant ones — these ones are not against the vaccine, but they also are not sure if they want to be vaccinated, a “floating group” that can be persuaded.
“We do not talk about the ones who hesitate”, states Jennifer, “but the opinion polls show that this percentage reduced from December to March, going from 39% to 17%”, she said. According to her, if a person knows someone who was vaccinated, they’re more likely to accept taking the vaccine. Likewise, if a person knows someone who refuses to take the vaccine, they’re more likely to reject it.
On the subject The involvement of minorities in vaccination, Gwenetta D. Curry, professor of race, ethnicity, and health at Edinburgh University, pointed out that this resistance can come from historical issues: “On 1996, a company tested a meningitis vaccine in Nigeria. Eleven children died”, she said.
According to opinion polls, 72% of black British people said in January that they did not want to be vaccinated. To Curry, it’s necessary to see the factors leading to this. Without the right to medical leave, a lot of these people fear losing workdays because of the side effects. How can we change this? To Curry, the answer is engaging community leaders, a measure that worked with the Asian population in the United Kingdom. The medical community can work with those leaders, making home visits and sharing information in other languages besides English, but it is important to ensure they have medical leave, argues Curry. “The vaccine supply needs to be more fair, there’s a concentration on rich countries. Ignoring what is going on in India thinking it won’t affect us doesn’t work. Health is an interconnected system”, she stated.
The STI Forum is convened by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc) with the purpose of discussing how Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) can help to reach the SDG.