Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:
Last week, in Oxford, the first volunteers in the first European human trial were injected with a potential coronavirus vaccine. At the same time, Pakistan’s National Institute of Health received an offer from the Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinopharm International Corp to take part in a trial of another potential coronavirus vaccine.
The two events reveal twin aspects of the global process of drug trials and development. On the one hand, there is the ingenuity and drive that allow a potential vaccine to emerge in a fraction of the time it would normally take, as well as the courage and selflessness shown by the volunteers risking their health to test it. On the other, the increasing use of poorer nations as testing grounds for new medicines, in trials in which the subjects often have, because of poverty and lack of access to health provision, little choice about whether to take part.
The details of the proposed Chinese trial are still unclear, but it is part of what many call the ‘globalisation of clinical trials’. Until the end of the last century, virtually all clinical trials by Western pharmaceutical companies were conducted in Europe or America. The majority still are. Over the past 20 years, however, US, European and, increasingly, Chinese companies have taken to offshoring trials to low- and middle-income countries.