For Vaccine Equity, We Must Unleash Truly Global Vaccine Production
The COVID-19 crisis in India continues to leave thousands of its citizens in unthinkable circumstances, with health services and supplies extremely limited and the system on the brink of collapse.
It’s a shocking reminder of the danger of COVID-19 to developing countries and how medical tools like oxygen, therapeutic medicine, and testing remain crucial to saving lives around the world.
And as much as India urgently needs more COVID-19 vaccine doses to help stop the spread of the virus among its 1.4 billion population, the crisis is also having a ripple effect on global vaccine access.
Millions of people in the poorest countries are relying on COVAX for doses, but 70% of its current supply is slated to come from the Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine producer, and the Indian government has understandably suspended vaccine exports to refocus distribution at home in response to the crisis.
This has left COVAX having to look for other options, putting at risk both its short-term goal of delivering 237 million doses in the first half of this year (49 million of which have been delivered so far) and 1.8 billion doses to the poorest countries by the year’s end.
Limited global vaccine supply is one of the biggest challenges to ending the pandemic. Rich countries have cornered the vaccine market, in some cases ordering up to four or five times the doses needed for their entire populations.
At the same time, supply levels remain subject to the control of a handful of pharmaceutical companies who own the technology, can strike up a wide network of production partners, or not, and even amid a once-in-a-century pandemic have profit aims (AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson have committed to not-for-profit pricing during the pandemic, but the exact time period of the commitment is within their discretion).
The question is: How do we unlock more production and supply, enough to achieve equitable access for everyone, everywhere?
Simply put, we need to do whatever it takes. Lives and livelihoods are on the line. COVID-19 variants emerging in undervaccinated parts of the world are a threat to us all, potentially even those who’ve been vaccinated. The global economy stands to lose as much as $9.2 trillion, with rich countries bearing half of the cost. All options must be on the table because the only way out of this extraordinary crisis is through extraordinary action.
This includes the temporary suspension of patents and intellectual property so that vaccine producers around the world, including in developing countries, can attempt to produce generic versions of the vaccines without risk of being sued.
A temporary waiver to that effect has been proposed and advanced by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization (WTO) with the support of over 100 mostly developing countries. Up to this point, a group of wealthy countries — who are well ahead in vaccinating their citizens and are home to major pharmaceutical industries, including the US, UK, and EU — opposed the waiver. But on Wednesday, the US declared that it would change course and support negotiations to lift IP on vaccines, a major development that will hopefully influence others to come forward.
While the waiver wouldn’t result in more vaccines overnight and would likely need to come with additional measures to compel pharma companies to share knowledge and trade secrets, it could open the door for a significant net gain in doses from different regions around the world within a year.
Consider Incepta, a pharma manufacturer in Bangladesh, which reportedly reached out to executives at Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and Novavax offering to play a key role in helping produce up to 800 million doses of their vaccines per year for distribution in Asia. No one replied. Biolyse, a smaller manufacturer in Canada, wants to produce 20 million doses a year for lower-income countries if only it were given the “recipe” and had legal protection to do so.
Imagine — what if we could mobilize manufacturers all over the world to work together to produce and equitably supply the doses everyone needs? What if the US and other wealthy governments invested in regional manufacturing capacity, both to produce more doses against COVID-19 and so developing countries could be empowered and prepared to respond to future pandemics, in everyone’s interests? How many lives might be saved? How quickly might we safely return to work, hug our friends and loved ones, and travel once again? That’s what this is all about.
India and South Africa’s proposal has also put added pressure on governments to bring pharma companies to the table to agree on wider, more open, and better coordinated global production partnerships towards increasing supply and achieving equitable access. This would also help. Again, whatever it takes to change the current approach and the massive inequity it’s causing.
As Global Citizen and others continue to call on governments to share doses and fully fund COVAX to help protect more people globally as fast as possible, there’s no reason we can’t at the same time also start on the path to unlocking greater global supply over the medium term. We have to. Because a once-in-a-century pandemic that’s taken over 3 million lives and continues spreading like wildfire is not the time for consolidating power or profits. It’s the time for collaboration and cooperation for the good of all humanity.
As part of Global Citizen’s Recovery Plan for the World campaign, VAX LIVE: The Concert to Reunite the World will bring together artists, entertainers, world leaders, and more to ensure equitable vaccine distribution around the world, tackle COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, and celebrate a hopeful future.
Find out how to tune in here, and join us in taking action to end the pandemic and ensure that everyone, everywhere has access to COVID-19 vaccines. Then, head to our multimedia hub VAX BECAUSE to join candid conversations about the pandemic and find answers to your biggest questions about the vaccines.
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