Although Panama launched its Science Diplomacy National Strategy in 2018,1 science diplomacy (SD) has a long history and has been intertwined with the country’s public health responses to emergent pathogens.
On March 8, 2020, Panama reported its first COVID-19 positive case. However, epidemiological and genomics studies suggest that the virus might have been circulating earlier than thought.2 Around mid-January, the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the main institutions linked to epidemiological surveillance began to work on the basis that the virus would end up entering the country. This national preparation to face the COVID-19 pandemic required continuous exchange with international organizations and countries in the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region, with SD playing a crucial role.
Preparedness and Role of International Networks to Support National Responses to COVID-19
From the beginning, acquisition of supplies, training of technical and scientific personnel, preparation of existing infrastructure, and planning of the possible projected pandemic scenarios were conducted jointly with health and government authorities, but also with international organizations through “diplomacy for science” actions. Indeed, thanks to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) building and training capabilities, Panama was ready in early-February of 2020 for real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) detection of SARS-CoV-2. Since Latin American countries must determine donations allocation, PAHO also audited laboratory resources and identified which countries could help others in their COVID-19 response. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Central American Regional Office (CDC-CAR) conducted a similar survey. Panama has also offered PAHO and CDC-CAR its help for neighboring countries. Altogether it strengthened SD in the region and increased transnational collaboration as well as sharing of regional information about circulating genotypes, all of which were pivotal to guide health decision-making.
In February, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) created a Network of Virologists to promote exchange of COVID-19 response outcomes. This initiative was a joint effort of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and the MOH of each country. Another improvement was the reinforcement of the regional collaborative networks for clinical and laboratory diagnosis and research. Panama has been integral in all of these networks.
"Diplomacy for science" played a crucial role in increasing Panama’s laboratory and clinical capacities, too. After the State of Emergency declaration in the country, Panama received donations of reagents, protection equipment, and supplies from different organizations: PAHO, CDC-CAR, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), and SE-COMISCA.3 Thanks to them, Panama has been the Latin American and Caribbean country with the highest number of tests per capita, since the detection of SARS-CoV-2 for many months.4 This has allowed the rapid control of five of the ten virus lineages introduced at the beginning of the outbreak.5
COVID-19 Research and Cross-border Funding and Collaboration
Since April 2020, the National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation (SENACYT) has supported the development of several initiatives in Panama. Among them, the COVID-19 grant calls are of special relevance.6 More than 300 proposals were submitted and two of the thirty-two selected have already shared the data through open access pre-print articles.7
Panama has been one of the few middle-income countries and the only one in Central America that has dedicated fast-track specific funds for COVID-19 research at the beginning of the pandemic. However, funding came not only from the country itself, but also from other countries, such the UK, which opened a call for bids for COVID-19 response in Panama.8 Vertical mother-fetal transmission through the placenta, a joint effort of Gorgas Memorial Institute and major public hospitals, was one of the funded projects.
Science Diplomacy for COVID-19 Vaccination
The MOFA lead negotiations with countries and laboratories involved in the COVID-19 vaccine.9 On September 18, 2020, Panama joined the COVAX initiative, aimed at providing countries around the world with equitable access to safe and effective vaccines, as one of the ninety-two low- and middle-income economies of the 172 involved. The Panamanian state continued with the procedures to acquire several of the available vaccines, taking into account that, after receiving the endorsement of the (U.S.) FDA for the commercialization of its vaccine, Pfizer would prioritize those countries prepared to sign the acquisition agreement. MOFA has also concluded arrangements with Astra Zeneca and Johnson & Johnson. Panama received its first shipment of Pfizer vaccines on January 20th, 2021 and expects to complete the quantity negotiated with this company by the end of the first quarter of this year.
Moreover, in collaboration with MOFA, CEVAXIN Research Center and the Institute of Scientific Research and High Technology Services (INDICASAT-AIP) teamed with the international COVID-19 Vaccine Research Consortium for vaccine clinical trials and research in the country.
Critical Reflections and Lessons for the Future
Undoubtedly, COVID-19 is a global crisis which needs global collaboration to end it. No country will be safe until all are safe. International cooperation, together with national efforts, has been key in Panama’s initial response to the pandemic. We acknowledge the importance of networks and organizations, as well as the value of having trained personnel and good laboratory structures, able to provide a quick response to rising cases in a pandemic outbreak.
However, major shortcomings must be corrected. Specifically, information sharing between authorities must be faster to increase decision-making efficiency, and bureaucracy must be reduced to acquire reagents and supplies. Furthermore, low- and middle-income countries could gain independence by promoting their own science manufacturing industry and innovation centers, and by accelerating the implementation of technological advancements.
Although scientists, diplomats, and policymakers are not obvious bedfellows, COVID-19 has highlighted the crucial role that evidence-based decisions play in tackling humanity’s grand challenges. Thus, it would behoove Panama and other LAC countries to institutionalize SD as a key strategy to strengthening national and regional health security in the future.
SLV is member of the Sistema Nacional de Investigación (SNI) from Secretaría Nacional de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación (SENACYT) from Panama and of the Global Young Academy (GYA). ITA and SLV are members of Ciencia en Panama.
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation (SENACYT), “Lineamientos de la Estrategia de Diplomacia Científica, Tecnológica y de Innovación,” https://mire.gob.pa/images/PDF/Lineamientos%20de%20la%20Estrategia%20de%20Diplomacia%20Cientifica%20-%20Rev%2031%20de%20mayo%20de%202019.pdf.
- Franco Danilo et al, “Early Transmission Dynamics, Spread, and Genomic Characterization of SARS-CoV-2 in Panama,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 27, No. 2 (2021), https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/early-release; https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.07.31.20160929.
- SE-COMISCA stands in Spanish for Secretaria Ejecutiva del Consejo de Ministros de Salud de Centroamérica y República Dominicana (Executive Secretariat of the Council of Ministers of Health of Central America and the Dominican Republic, part of the Central American Integration System, SICA): https://www.sica.int/comisca/
- Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, “How does testing in the U.S. compare to other countries?” February 2, 2021, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/testing/international-comparison
- Danilo et al, “Early Transmission Dynamics, Spread, and Genomic Characterization of SARS-CoV-2 in Panama.”
- Maria Gabriela Alvarado, “Panama Iniciara Estudio de Vacuna Contra COVID-19,” SENACYT (April 2020), https://imagina.senacyt.gob.pa/panama-iniciara-estudio-de-vacuna-contra-covid-19/ ; Rella Rosenshain, “Tras la Busqueda de Farmacos Contra COVID-19,” SENACYT (April 2020), https://imagina.senacyt.gob.pa/tras-la-busqueda-de-farmacos-contra-covid-19/
- Danilo et al, “Early Transmission Dynamics, Spread, and Genomic Characterization of SARS-CoV-2 in Panama;” Alcibiades Villarreal et al, “Performance of a Point of Care Test for Detecting IgM and IgG Antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 and Seroprevalence in Blood Donors and Health Care Workers in Panama,” medRxiv (2020), https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.09.25.20201459.
- British Embassy Panama City, “Panama call for bids 20-21: supporting COVID-19 response,” July 27, 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/panama-call-for-bids-20-21-supporting...
- Ministry of Foreign Relations of Panama, https://mire.gob.pa