The recent announcement of an agreement between the Peruvian government and Russia to establish a production plant for vaccines against COVID-19 Sputnik V has caused a stir. And with this, many questions remain unanswered: does President Pedro Castillo’s announcement mean that we will have access to doses manufactured in the country soon? What is needed to carry out this project? What is the experience in the region?
The experts consulted by El Comercio agree that -although this is an important proposal, because it will allow us to stop depending on international supply-, it will take time from the announcement until the first vaccine leaves the possible production plant. It is a medium and long-term project, they say.
At this time, limited access to COVID-19 vaccines, a key asset for the return to so-called normality, affects low- and middle-income countries, say entities such as GAVI, Unicef and the World Health Organization (WHO ). In Latin America and the Caribbean, by early September, only one in four people was fully vaccinated and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) expressed its concern, as the region needs 540 million doses to guarantee that all countries can protect at least 60% of their population.
This problem worries more than one government. In the region, countries such as Chile, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil carry out similar initiatives, and some already produce their own vaccines, such as Cuba. International laboratories such as Sinovac, Pfizer and Gamaleya (behind Sputnik V) have projects to produce in the region.
It is important to clarify that no laboratory in Peru currently produces vaccines for use in humans.
A medium and long-term project
However, leaving this dependence behind through local vaccine production will not be a project that will solve, at this time, the supply problem, which has improved for some nations in recent weeks, such as Peru.
Asked about the government’s proposal, Jarbas Barbosa, deputy director of PAHO, told this newspaper that initiatives of this type require complex prior steps and that, now, the response to the shortage of COVID-19 vaccines involves negotiating donations with countries with extra dose.
“Surely this is not an answer for the short term, because to implement a vaccine factory, with all the requirements of quality, safety, technical capacity … That takes time. It is a strategic initiative to reduce vulnerability [de los países frente a la dependencia tecnológica]”, assures.
Along these lines, Pedro Riega, former deputy head of the National Institute of Health (INS), highlights that this is a valid, albeit complex, proposal: “As a strategy, the implementation of vaccine production plants is a valid strategy that has shown that countries that have this advantage they have a greater capacity to access vaccines ”.
Although it is an important strategic decision, the expert warns that at the moment no further details are known regarding this project. It is not known, for example, if this announcement was made after evaluating the different technological alternatives that exist in the world regarding the technologies behind vaccines or if it only responds to the will of both governments.
“It is a highly specialized process, because the technologies are complex to implement; a thorough technical evaluation is required to be able to selectr, of the global global offer, which would be the most appropriate for our country. So, this decision must be made after evaluating all the possibilities and also, obviously, considering a political and diplomatic component ”, Add.
Which are the steps to follow?
In order to be able to implement a vaccine plant in the country, whether with a total or partial participation of the State, administrative and legal steps must be overcome, on the one hand, and technical aspects (technology transfer).
In the first step, you should consider the national investment system that establishes a series of steps and deadlines for preparing an investment project with total or partial public participation.
“That takes time, around a year or year and a half to have a technical file and to be able to start the construction of a plant ”, the expert details. With which, if that were the path that the Government would follow, then by the end of 2022 we would have this key document.
Following President Castillo’s announcement, Health Minister Hernando Cevallos provided more details: talks with the Russian authorities began on August 31. “[La implementación de la planta] it would be by the year 2023 anyway, with good luck for 2022 ”.
For the experts interviewed by El Comercio, the government’s political will to give priority to this project and, in this way, that it becomes a reality in the shortest time will be key.
In this context, the National Institute of Health (INS) will have a fundamental role in what would be a possible national center for the production of vaccines, since, as the governing body, it is under its powers to conduct innovation in health and “the production of biologicals and goods of strategic importance in public health ”, according to the recent Legislative Decree 1504 that strengthens its competencies for the prevention and control of diseases. In addition, the INS is the institution in charge of technology transfer “With the participation of public and private institutions and the academic sector, national and international.”
Currently, the INS has been producing antidotes for venomous snake bites since the late 1970s. Its National Center for Biological Products It is considered a national and international benchmark.
In the region, Argentina expects to have a new plant to produce Sputnik V and other biotech products by August 2022, when small-scale production would begin and the plant is expected to be fully operational in February 2023. The private Richmond laboratory, behind the project, raised $ 85 million from international investors for the project.
With these deadlines, the vaccines against COVID-19 produced in the country they won’t be available for at least two years. Since we still do not know how often we will have to receive a vaccine against COVID-19, having a plant in the country would put us in a better position in terms of access to doses.
In addition, a plant of this type could be used to produce vaccines the country needs for other preventable diseases and that are currently acquired from other countries, either directly or through PAHO’s revolving fund. Currently, the ENational Immunization Scheme includes 17 vaccines that protect against 26 potentially serious diseases, such as chickenpox, measles, polio, pneumococcus, among others.
“These diseases will always exist that at a global level, let’s say, do not affect so many people, but for our country they are important. Therefore, it is necessary for the country to be able to make this qualitative leap towards a capacity for the development of innovation and the production of vaccines. We are not talking about the fact that this project should serve to defeat COVID-19 in the immediate or short term, but it is important that it start because there are other countries such as Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico that are already ahead of us. If we don’t, we will continue to maintain our technological dependence how much damage has caused us as a country during this pandemic “, warns Riega.
For PAHO, “It is important to strengthen the production capacity of vaccines, medicines and other medical products in the region”; For this reason, they recently launched a regional platform to achieve the production of vaccines with the new messenger RNA technology, behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The objective is to reduce the vulnerability of Latin American and Caribbean countries in access to vaccines, not just COVID-19.
Therefore, the entity reiterates that this initiative is projected in the medium and long term, and the alternative “More immediate to expand access to vaccines [COVID-19] it is stimulate more donations by developed countries ”.
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