Why are there so many COVID-19 vaccine candidates?

Posted in Random thoughts, Technology trends at 4:52 pm by ducky

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s COVID-19 vaccine tracker lists 292 vaccines in development as of 2021-01-26, and there is at least one not on that list yet. At least 69 vaccine candidates are currently in clinical trials.

Why are there so many? Surely, you say, we don’t need so many candidates. Why did so many companies try? Why don’t most of them quit now. Why don’t the losers just manufacture the winners’ vaccines?

There are several reasons why there are so many.

  1. There are nearly 8 billion people out there. That huge market means a huge opportunity to make money, so many people wanted to invest.
  2. There are lots of different market segments out there, and not all vaccines are appropriate for all markets. For example:
  3. Countries have a financial incentive to fund domestic development of vaccines. COVID-19 costs a huge, huge amount in lives, money, and social well-being, for every single day that the pandemic continues. Compared to being in a pandemic longer, a vaccine development program is cheap.
  4. Countries have domestic security reasons to develop their own vaccines:
    • Countries would rather not have to inject their citizens with liquids coming from their political rivals. For example, Taiwan might not want not trust vaccines from China.
    • There are (IMHO legitimate) concerns that other countries might slap export controls on vaccines developed in their home countries, insisting that those vaccines go to their own citizens first. Countries have no control over when they can have access to foreign vaccines, but might be able to exert some control over domestic providers’ priority and sequencing choices.
  5. Players — both countries and companies — have an incentive to invest in vaccine technology to ensure long-term competitiveness, especially for mRNA vaccines. The mRNA vaccines are so good that being able to make them domestically is a huge strength, both in terms of being able to make your citizens healthier in the future and in terms of increasing your country’s economic might.

As for the question of why the losers don’t just manufacture the “winners'” vaccines, in addition to #5 above:

  • The “losers” might not have accepted yet that they have “lost”. Even if the pandemic eases in the developed countries in the next year, there’s still going to be billions of people who still need the vaccine. So even if the “loser” vaccine doesn’t get to market for a year, there’s still a lot of time to make money on the vaccine after that.
  • The “winners” might not feel comfortable licensing their manufacturing technology to their rivals. Why should Moderna show Providence Therapeutics how to make mRNA vaccines, when Providence might turn into a competitor later on?
    • It would make more sense for the “winners” to flat-out buy their competitors. The winners presumably are making money right now, so they ought to be able to afford it.
  • The “winners” are busy right now. They are making (and selling!) vaccines as fast as they can at the moment. Technology transfer deals — or outright purchases — take time and attention, and companies like Moderna probably do not have any attention to spare at the moment. Look for deals in a year or two. (Right now, Pfizer is doing an internal upgrade to its factory to boost production, causing a short-term drop in supply, causing people to totally lose their collective shit enormous consternation among their customers.)

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