Race for virus vaccine could leave some countries behind
LONDON (AP) - As the race for a vaccine against the new coronavirus intensifies, rich countries are rushing to pre-order the inevitably limited supply to ensure that their citizens are vaccinated first. This leaves significant questions unanswered whether developing countries will be given vaccines time to save lives before the pandemic ends.
Earlier this month, the United Nations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, and others said it was a "moral imperative" that everyone had access to a "people's vaccine." However, such great explanations are unenforceable, and without a detailed strategy, vaccine allocation could be unjust and extremely messy, health experts say.
"We have this beautiful picture of everyone who gets the vaccine, but there is no road map for how to do it," said Yuan Qiong Hu, a senior legal and policy advisor to Médecins Sans Frontières in Geneva. Few measures have been taken to solve numerous fair distribution problems, she said.
In the past, according to Hu, companies have often filed patents for almost every step in the development and manufacture of a vaccine: from biological material such as the cell lines used to the preservative needed to stretch vaccine doses to vaccine administration.
"We cannot afford to face these diverse layers of private rights to create a" people's vaccine, "" she said.
Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo agreed at a vaccine summit earlier this month that dealt with the delicate issue of fair distribution.
"Only a people's vaccine with equality and solidarity at its core can protect all of humanity from the virus," he said.
At a summit with African heads of state and government on Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that countries in Africa would "be among the first to benefit" once a COVID-19 vaccine is developed and used in China. However, no agreements have been announced to support his promise.
Around a dozen potential COVID-19 vaccines are at an early stage of testing worldwide. While some may move on to late stage tests later this year if all goes well, a license is unlikely to be issued until early next year at the earliest. Nevertheless, numerous rich countries have already ordered some of these experimental recordings and are awaiting delivery before they receive marketing approval.
The United Kingdom and the United States have spent millions of dollars on various vaccine candidates, including one developed by Oxford University and manufactured by AstraZeneca. In return, priority treatment is expected from both countries. The UK government said the first 30 million doses would be for the UK if the vaccine proved effective.
AstraZeneca separately signed an agreement to provide at least 300 million cans to the United States, with the first batches already delivered in October. In a briefing on Tuesday, senior Trump administration officials said that there will be a tiered system to determine who gets the first vaccine dose in America. Levels are likely to include groups most at risk of serious illnesses and workers providing essential services.
The European Union ensured its own supply last week. On Saturday, AstraZeneca signed a contract with a vaccine group forged by Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands to receive 400 million doses by the end of the year.
Among several global efforts to ensure that developing countries do not lag behind is a “market pre-engagement” by the GAVI vaccine alliance, whose CEO has warned countries of the dangers that vaccines are not available worldwide.
"Even if some countries get vaccines when angry outbreaks occur elsewhere ... it will continue to threaten the world and a return to normal," said Seth Berkley, CEO of GAVI.
GAVI and partners have signed a $ 750 million contract with AstraZeneca to deliver 400 million cans by the end of 2020. The Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company has also agreed to license its vaccine to the Indian Serum Institute for the production of 1 billion doses.
Johnson & Johnson plans to launch its coronavirus at a nonprofit price for poor countries due to the complexity of the technology and expertise required, said the company's scientific director, Dr. Paul Stoffels. AstraZeneca also agreed to make the vaccine available at no profit during the pandemic.
The World Health Organization and others have requested a COVID-19 patent pool in which intellectual property rights are waived so that pharmaceuticals can freely exchange data and technical knowledge. A number of countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada and Germany, have already begun to revise their licensing laws so that they can suspend intellectual property rights when the pandemic indicates that the need is overwhelming.
However, the industry's response was lukewarm.
Executives from Pfizer and a number of other major pharmaceutical companies are opposed to patent rights suspension for potential COVID-19 vaccines.
Health officials are concerned about what this could mean for the distribution of vaccine stocks that are likely to be needed by every country on the planet.
"We cannot only rely on goodwill to ensure access," said Arzoo Ahmed of the British Nuffield Council on Bioethics, noting that precedents for the diffusion of innovative drugs are not encouraging. "With HIV / AIDS, it took 10 years for the drugs to reach people in lower-income countries."
African nations have been at the bottom of the medical pandemic and "it gets worse if a vaccine is found," UNAIDS chief Winnie Byanyima told reporters on Thursday. "We can't afford to be in the back of the queue."
Other experts pointed out that billions of tax dollars are spent on each phase of vaccine development, but little control over how funds are spent and little guarantee that vaccinations are given to those who need them most.
"We don't know what the process will look like or how transparent it will be," said Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Center at the Graduate Institute Geneva.
The World Health Organization is currently working on developing an "allocation framework" for the delivery of coronavirus vaccines, said Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist for the United States Health Department. However, these instructions would not be binding.
Swaminathan said she hoped that 2 billion doses worldwide could be available to vulnerable and priority health workers by the end of next year and that WHO would suggest how they could be distributed.
"The countries have to agree and come to a consensus," she said. "This is the only way this can work."
Larson reported from Washington. Associated press writers Danica Kirka in London, Lauran Neergaard in Alexandria, Virginia, Linda A. Johnson in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania and Cara Anna in Johannesburg contributed to this report.
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