When Shanghai-based virologist Zhang Yongzhen released the first complete genome sequence for Sars-CoV-2 on 11 January 2020, he was doing more than starting the clock for the vaccines currently being launched into the world.
Through his friend and colleague, University of Sydney professor Edward Holmes, who posted the sequence on the website Virological.org, Zhang set a standard for international collaboration, forgoing possible remuneration and risking the ire of the Chinese authorities.
The genome sequence became the key to an unprecedented and accelerated global campaign to find a vaccine; one that must now keep pace with the mutations which are a source of concern this year.
At the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, Professor Sarah Gilbert quickly plugged the genetic structure of the virus into previous work in the realm of coronaviruses, resulting in the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
Scientists worked with partners across borders, culminating in the design of viable jabs within just 10 months. Driven by the humanitarian desire to end the pandemic, apart from the usual incentives of monetary reward and professional success, vaccine internationalism prevailed in the scientific community at least.
Often it was individuals who took the step of putting humanity first – before the dictates of company or country. For example, the collaboration between a young Chinese researcher, Nianshuang Wang, and Jason McLellan, a US molecular biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, led to a vital breakthrough that helped steer both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to success.
The research took place in the US, with a lab whose geography mattered little to its occupants. Wang, a Chinese scientist in America, played a key role by finding a way to stabilize the shape-shifting spike protein of a coronavirus. The technology that resulted is also being used by Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, CureVac and Translate Bio.
Even as relations between their two countries deteriorated, Wang’s work with McLellan is symbolic of science transcending politics.
In addition to those who created the vaccines, collaborations extended to those who produced them. The Serum Institute of India – which produces 60 per cent of the world’s vaccines – has collaborated with partners across the world to manufacture large quantities of several Covid-19 vaccines, including Oxford-AstraZeneca. And Hyderabad-based Hetero Biopharma plans to manufacture more than 100 million doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine annually, through a deal with the Russian Direct Investment Fund.
Some partnerships are more predictable than others. Brazil was due to begin manufacturing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine earlier this year but its programme ran into trouble; having blamed China for the pandemic and spread doubt about vaccine efficacy, Brazil’s rightwing government then ended up making a deal with Chinese vaccine-maker Sinovac. Cuba, meanwhile, is developing its own jab – which, if successful, it will share with Venezuela and other countries in the region.
And it all started with Zhang’s crucial and timely disclosure. Thanks in no small part to his decision on that day in January 2020, as of this March there were over 60 Covid-19 vaccine candidates in clinical development and more than 170 in pre-clinical development, according to the World Health Organization.
Rajni George is a writer and editor based in south India. Her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the New York Times and the Caravan.