Mexico is betting on several horses in the race to find a vaccine against the coronavirus. While the main world powers compete to see who will arrive first, the Latin American country has made a diplomatic deployment in several tracks with which it seeks to guarantee its access to the winning prototype – with alliances with countries such as China, the United States and Russia – and lead , at the same time, the claim of countries without the possibility of competing so that the distribution is equitable. “We are not betting all eggs to one basket, but we are playing, or being on time, in very different projects “, said this Thursday Marcelo Ebrard, the Secretary of Foreign Relations.
The hope of finding a vaccine before the end of the year suffered a bump this week, after the announcement on Tuesday by the British laboratory AstraZeneca to suspend clinical trials of the vaccine it is developing with the University of Oxford. It is the most advanced candidate and the project with which Mexico had agreed on August 13 to produce more than 250 million doses, in association with Argentina and the foundation of the magnate Carlos Slim.
By Wednesday, the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador hinted that it had several aces up its sleeve for some time. Two days before announcing its agreement with AstraZeneca, for example, the country had already shown interest in participating in the trials of the CanSino Biologics vaccine, one of the Chinese vaccines and part of the leading group. It also explores collaborating with two other Chinese projects. On August 14, Mexico also announced its interest in being part of Warp Speed, a White House operation to accelerate investigations with government aid valued at 10 billion dollars for US pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna, Novavax, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer. as well as for the German manufacturer Merck and AstraZeneca itself. The Mexican Foreign Ministry said this week that the country “is considered” in the US deployment.
At the end of last month, Mexico also made official its intention to join Covax – an initiative promoted by the European Commission, the World Health Organization and other international organizations – which would allow it to have vaccines for up to 20% of its population . The advantage of Covax is that it has several vaccines in its portfolio and works as some kind of insurance policy, in which countries with more resources advance part of the costs of injections to finance research and the poorest receive vaccines in a humanitarian way, giving access to vaccination to economies that would not be able to do so.
The López Obrador government has also not closed the door to Russia and announced that it would participate in the clinical trials of Sputnik V, the proposal sponsored by the Kremlin. Moscow has shown such interest that it advanced on Wednesday the signing of a contract to send 32 million doses to Mexico. After several hours without confirmation from the Mexican side on the agreement, the spokesman for the pandemic, Hugo López-Gatell, celebrated the initiative, but said that it was signed with the Mexican laboratory Landsteiner Scientific, without government participation in the negotiations. “It is a private distributor, it has nothing to do with the Government,” Gatell stressed, outlined as a key figure in the national vaccination policy.
Mexico’s network of alliances is based on bilateral agreements with China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and the United States. In the multilateral sphere, there are initiatives such as Covax and a resolution that promoted in the United Nations Organization to guarantee equitable access to medicines, medical equipment and vaccines against covid-19, which had the support of more than 160 countries.
“We are talking about an almost omnipresent diplomatic policy,” says Ulises Granados, an academic at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “It is a medium power that needs these pacts because it is one of the countries most affected by the pandemic and because it does not have such a strong economy or science and technology infrastructure,” he adds. That dialogue was reflected months earlier with an airlift of supplies against the pandemic from China and the shipment of mechanical respirators from the United States.
To get closer to the countries that develop vaccines, Mexico puts on the table successful experiences in previous vaccination campaigns, volunteers to advance clinical trials by having an active epidemic and a manufacturing infrastructure that hardened after trade agreements with the United States and Canada, says geopolitical analyst Javier Arreola. “The value of the vaccine is unquantifiable, not only because of its international prestige as a moral prize, but also because of the possibility of getting ahead in the economic reactivation,” he says. Added to the Mexican recipe is the support of heavyweights like Slim, one of the richest people in the world, and the possibility of becoming the gateway for laboratories to Latin America. Although there are several countries that seek to join the clinical trials of different vaccines, specialists assure that they have not seen many countries with a similar strategy in the multilateral and bilateral fields.
While the world is racing against the clock for the vaccine, the risk of rushing is latent. “Administering a vaccine prematurely, without detecting side effects during clinical trials, would be a catastrophe. It could cause hundreds or thousands of cases of affected people, it would boost the discourse of the anti-vaccine movements and it would mean a setback for the governments that are seeking a way out of the pandemic with the vaccine, ”warns José Moreno, director of Research at Hospital Juárez.
Despite publishing its results in the prestigious magazine The Lancet, the main doubts about Sputnik V focus on the fact that it has only been tested on 76 people, when in the final phase of testing, which includes AstraZeneca, clinical trials are usually carried out with thousands of people, explains Moreno. “I am very concerned that it is said that it is going to be bought because we do not have enough information about the Russian vaccine, the analysis sample, so far, is very small”, comments the immunologist. Both candidates, as well as the CanSino proposal, are based on different strains of adenovirus, a type of vaccine that “does not exist in the pharmaceutical market for humans and there is not enough experience about its effects, both protective and undesirable,” according to the specialist.
“There will be a time when we have the best vaccine among the candidates, but that does not mean that we should stop looking for new vaccines that are better in the future,” predicts Moreno. “There will be a current winner, but that does not mean that it will remain so in one, two or three years.” The race for the vaccine has the finish line at the end of 2020, a deadline that AstraZeneca believes it can meet and that is also crucial for the aspirations of Trump, who seeks a new term in the elections next November. The WHO, on the other hand, has moderated its expectations and estimates that it will not be available in a massive way before 2022.
López Obrador’s double bet is free access for the entire population, a promise that will be put to the test when a prototype reaches the market and at first there are not enough doses for everyone, in a new chapter of the dilemma between national interests and international cooperation. “The pandemic is global and, if it is about saving lives, the solutions have to be global, with a vaccine that works for everyone,” says Granados.