The writer is prime minister of Spain
Covid-19 has affected the world profoundly. But as we mourn the millions of victims, we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel thanks to the speeding up of vaccination campaigns. Never before has humanity developed safe and effective vaccines against a new disease in such a short space of time. Scientific progress brought us hope.
Yet this feeling of hope is unevenly distributed. We still lag way behind in the aim of ensuring fair and affordable access to vaccines for all around the world. The virus continues to spread unchecked in several countries and regions, increasing the risk of dangerous new mutations.
No one will be safe until everyone is safe. This is not only a matter of justice — it is the key to fighting the pandemic efficiently and effectively.
By the end of May, 2bn Covid vaccine doses will have been produced globally. But we need around 11bn doses to immunise 70 per cent of the world’s population. In the meantime, Covax, the World Health Organization’s vaccine procurement programme, will deliver just 145m doses by the end of June, 100m short of initial expectations. Production and access to vaccines must increase exponentially, and urgently.
The debate about how to ensure this happens remains polarised. The costs of drug innovation are very high, while those of imitation are relatively low. Medicine development takes 10 years and over $2.5bn on average. In normal times, patents play a key role in fostering innovation. But these are not normal times.
We are in the midst of a major pandemic, and we need to use all the means at our disposal to end it as soon as possible. In this context, intellectual property cannot be an obstacle to ensuring equitable and universal access to vaccines. This is why consensus must urgently be sought, as some countries have entreated, on the US proposal for a temporary waiver of certain obligations under the Trips intellectual property agreement for Covid vaccines. Moreover, in preparation for future health emergencies, we should look at adapting global rules on intellectual property rights.
Intellectual property rights are just one part of the equation, however. Over 80 patents are involved in the creation of an mRNA vaccine, whose production involves 280 different components sourced from 86 suppliers in 19 countries, and whose storage and distribution requires very complex logistics.
This is why Spain is proposing a comprehensive initiative to facilitate the transmission of the necessary technology and expertise, lift all barriers to ramping up production and accelerate vaccine distribution.
First, until agreement is reached at the World Trade Organization, we need to deploy all available mechanisms to incentivise pharma companies to enter into voluntary licensing agreements, as well as the pooling of all forms of knowledge related to the virus, including through the WHO’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool. The upcoming G20 global health summit and the World Health Assembly should be used to encourage the industry to transfer the necessary knowhow.
Second, it is critical to make full use of existing manufacturing capacities while removing trade obstacles and ensuring the proper functioning of supply chains. We must avoid the existence of underutilised resources and quickly identify both surpluses and shortages of essential items, helping optimise the distribution of supplies. Specific and urgent trade facilitation measures are also needed. All countries should commit to ease or remove every obstacle to trade, including import duties and export bans, along the manufacturing value chain, covering finished vaccines and the raw materials and components necessary to produce them.
Third, the transportation, distribution and delivery of vaccines needs to be accelerated, both between countries and within them. Covax must be given the financial and non-financial support it needs to meet the goal of delivering at least 2bn doses by the end of the year. Likewise, the “health systems connector” pillar of the WHO’s global collaborative framework should be buttressed to build the necessary processing, storage, distribution and delivery capacity.
Delivering vaccines for all is the first step to building back better. Scientific progress has given us the tools to bring the deadliest pandemic in generations under control. Now, both governments and the private sector must rise to the challenge. We all must play our part. There is no alternative.