A half-dozen or more Covid-19 vaccines are now at work in the global battle against the pandemic. From the United States there are Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson, and Moderna vaccines. The Russians have developed the Sputnik V serum. The Chinese have Sinovac and Sinopharm.
The vaccines vary in ways they can be safely stored, and in cost and type. Some can be stored without much refrigeration, others must be at temperatures of 70 to more than 90 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit. Costs per dose vary, from $4 to more than $30. Vaccine types are “viral vector”, a genetically modified virus, or “RNA,” a type that uses part of the virus genetic code. There is a lot we don’t know about these vaccines, starting with how strong they are and the long and short of an immunization – six months, a year, more?
Scientific research has done splendid work in developing vaccines against this world plague. Distribution and inoculation are in their infancy and in some places – America and Western Europe, for example – they have been a staggering embarrassment, given the technology and resources of those continents.
Meanwhile, there is the unspoken Harry Lime factor, ghost of ‘The Third Man’, a screenplay and novel by the late Graham Greene. The movie (1949) and book (1950) are set in post World War II Vienna, a ruined and melancholic place in a bankrupt and starving Austria. Disease there was rampant, medicine scarce.
In the film, Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is a black market drug dealer who faked his own death to elude the authorities closing in on him. Lime had also orchestrated the smuggling of counterfeit penicillin. Medicine was scarce, drugs to fight bacterial infection were in high demand and for Harry Lime, a way to make a killing. For those who were treated, his diluted or phony penicillin meant serious illness or death, with countless Viennese children among the victims.
Harry Lime is exposed by a former longtime friend played by Joseph Cotton, and a British military intelligence officer (Trevor Howard). The story of Lime’s villainy unfolds in darkened Vienna, the movie’s haunting music taking the viewer from one shadow to the next and, in the end, into the city’s ancient sewers.
The movie and the book are rooted in fact. In early 1946, seven men and three women were arrested in Berlin on charges of making and selling fake penicillin. They included two former American GIs and an American doctor. Money was a motive. Penicillin was in such high demand in post war Europe that it had become currency.
The British Medical Journal has reported that the business of falsified medicines continues – fake ampicillin in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, phony antimalarials in France, India, South America.
“There are probably thousands of ‘Third Men’ hidden in today’s world – for example, a Parisian who manufactured falsified antimalarials containing laxatives, international trade from India, and emergency contraceptives containing antimalarials in South America.” the Journal said.
There are many reports of substandard drugs, poor quality medicines that come into the market by design, by accident, or by a calculated fraud. The damage to patients and health systems can be enormous, and catastrophic for public confidence.
And now a covid pandemic. All those vaccines, the billions of people worldwide who need their protection, the agencies and governments working tirelessly to distribute and inoculate, a monstrous task. And a monstrous temptation for the ghosts of Harry Lime.