The process of developing new vaccines in Mexico has been at a standstill for years, a situation which has been underscored during the current pandemic.
Producing a vaccine for Covid-19 implies access to an amount of money that has not been allocated to the budgets of national research institutes.
Mexican institutions such as Tecnológico de Monterrey and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) have generated proposals at prototype level, but more rigorous clinical trials have not been carried out to verify the safety and efficiency of the vaccine in humans.
Mexico lags far behind the United States, France, or Germany, which have been generating drugs on a massive scale for decades. It is considered normal to wait for a vaccine to be developed abroad and then purchase it, rather than investing in the infrastructure which other countries have in order to obtain our own vaccine for Covid-19.
The time needed to demonstrate that the vaccine works in animals is less than a year. But for human testing, it may be a little more.
Mexico is at a frank disadvantage with respect to other world powers in terms of being able to achieve this. However, we do have human talent, although it is wasted.
According to Christian Alberto García Sepúlveda, head of the Viral and Human Genome Laboratory in the Faculty of Medicine at the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí (UASLP), Mexico has world-class researchers, but it has little or no access to technology such as the massive scaling platforms, level 3 biosafety laboratories, or bioreactors necessary for vaccine production.
“Countries that have large laboratories and platforms to scale up vaccines have the advantage of already having well-established systems. In contrast, we generally have small laboratories that lack the capacity to supply the quantity of vaccines necessary to have an immediate or medium-term health or epidemiological impact,” says García Sepúlveda in an interview for Tec Review.
Ángel Gabriel Alpuche Solís, coordinator of the National Agricultural, Medical and Environmental Biotechnology Laboratory (LANBAMA), explains in an interview that this scientific black hole which Mexico has been unable to escape is known as “the valley of death”.
“Producing vaccines requires billions of dollars. It is not something that Conacyt (The National Council of Science and Technology) is going to finance. There is something called the valley of death, which refers to the process of going from a technological development in a laboratory to a hospital. It’s very complicated in Mexico.”
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Once it is shown that a molecule or some protein produced in plants, algae, or bacteria can work, that hole becomes hard to get out of.
“How can you really interest a pharmaceutical company? How can you get some support from a foundation or the government in order to make that leap? There has been support to show that certain compounds work, but the part in which billions of dollars have to be invested is missing,” says Alpuche Solís.
Similarly, Graciela Castro Escarpulli, a researcher at the National School of Biological Sciences (ENCB) at the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN), believes that the government lacks a support strategy for science.
“There is no effective plan from the federal government to provide support for the production of vaccines. For example, sites like the Biological and Reagent Laboratories of Mexico (Birmex) lack the finances and infrastructure to develop new vaccines,” explains the scientist.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Those who most resent the status quo of “the valley of death” are recently graduated researchers, who could be the key to getting out of the quagmire.
This is what Jesús Miguel Torres Flores, virologist and postdoctoral researcher at the Autonomous University of Mexico City (UACM), says, while also focusing on the importance of opening up new spaces.
“The virologist community in Mexico is small, and there are young people who are very capable of starting their own research groups. However, it is necessary to open up spaces to allow them into the different educational and industrial institutions around the country. Now is when doors must be opened to young talent in Mexico, because it is they who will have to face future pandemics.”
On the other hand, according to María Isabel Salazar Sánchez, professor and researcher at the ENCB Virology and Immunovirology Laboratory at IPN, the perception of science by the general public is not good, and this is an issue which the scientific community is partially responsible for.
“The necessary bridges have not been built, nor has there been work for a mass culture of science. It’s an error caused by the scientific community, and one that must be corrected,” says this researcher in an interview for Tec Review.
According to Salazar Sánchez, a country’s leaders must be willing to identify real talent and philanthropically invest in the medium and long term, in addition to requiring results in reasonable periods of time. Scientists must make the commitment to apply their knowledge of hard science (biology, chemistry, physics, or mathematics) in a way that will have a positive impact on the society that so generously allows them to do what they love and are passionate about.
“Let me put it this way: innovation without hard science lacks spirit. Hard science without any application is heartless,” concludes this scientist.