A volunteer receives a COVID-19 test vaccine injection
Carl-Johan Karlsson

PARIS — It was only back in May that experts palmed off the 12-month goal post for a COVID-19 vaccine as wishful thinking. Now, with more than 140 candidate vaccines being developed, including three already in the final phase-3 trial, it seems we may be sprinting towards a new speed record in medical development.

"The early trial results of several vaccines … have been very promising," Aubree Gordon, associate professor of epidemiology at University of Michigan School of Public Health, told Reuters. "We should definitely ‘believe" these results, while acknowledging that they do not prove the vaccine is effective."

There was nothing strange in the scientific establishment initially raising eyebrows over the optimistic timelines of certain researchers and political leaders. After all, vaccine development is a complex process that often lasts in the order of 10 to 15 years. The fastest one ever developed was for mumps in 1967, and it was a four-year process.

This time around however, the scientific community and the pharmaceutical industry had a few factors in their favor. While no vaccine has ever been developed against a coronavirus, scientists had already conducted substantial research on the related SARS virus. This allowed fast-tracked design and animal testing once genetic sequences of SARS-CoV-2 were published, which was also done just weeks following the discovery of the first syndromes. It also helped that the urgent need to counter a novel virus came after a decade of scientific racing to combat other epidemics, such as Ebola, Zika and the Swine Flu, which had already improved the infrastructure of vaccine development.

But more than anything, the sense of urgency has in the last few months ushered in a new and potentially game-changing way of conducting medical research — one defined by speed and open access. Already by the outbreak's beginning, researchers began switching to a different form of publishing, where scientific articles were made publicly available before passing the gauntlet of peer review. This pivot has now been accompanied by both private and publicly funded instruments for data-sharing, such as the European Commission's COVID-19 Data Platform aimed at rapid collection and sharing of available research. Vaccine developers too, are doing all they can to fast-track a usually lengthy process by running simultaneous trial phases.

We've managed to compress decades-worth of research into a few months. What more we could achieve?

Still, despite this new system of open science and expedited trials, experts caution against premature excitement. There are still aspects of the virus that scientists don't fully understand, such as how it affects our immune response, while there will also be the challenge of making billions of doses available to the worldwide public once a vaccine is approved.


We're not there yet. But the fact that we have managed to compress years or even decades-worth of resources into a few months moves one to ask what more we could achieve. As said by Forward Ventures founder Standish Fleming: "If collaboration is able to achieve these results in a crisis, could it do the same against the major diseases, like cancer and Alzheimer's disease, which kill more people each year than COVID-19? Could a cooperative industry be more productive than a competitive one?"

Hard questions we won't begin to answer until we close that first question: When will we have the shot that puts this pandemic to rest?

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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