How can we create a fairer global distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines? That issue has sparked anguished debate recently as some countries, such as the US, are nearing a surplus of vaccine stocks, and others, such as India, are desperate for help.
All manner of ideas have been tossed around: straightforward donations from rich to poor countries; financial aid; a temporary suspension of patents on drugs — an idea backed by US president Joe Biden’s administration, which sparked a furore from Big Pharma.
Another concept is radical transparency. Last week, David Malpass, World Bank president, spoke at the FT’s Global Boardroom virtual event, where he revealed that he and others are trying to create a comprehensive database to collate information — such as price and volume — about vaccine orders placed between governments and pharmaceutical companies.
The idea is that a database would enable policymakers to address imbalances in supply and price more easily. However, if it became publicly available, the database might have another impact: reinforcing popular pressure for rich countries to aid poorer ones. “Transparency is helpful,” Malpass observed, lamenting that bilateral, private contracts are often swathed in secrecy.
Will radical transparency fly? Maybe. Unicef has already built a dashboard using publicly reported data. But this is not well publicised and there are gaps in the information, since it relies on voluntary reporting and published data, including price where available. It is not clear whether there is enough collective political muscle to force mandatory reporting from Big Pharma, which often prefers to keep details of commercial contracts confidential, and some governments might resist this too.
But Malpass’s comment is revealing. When historians look back at the past year, they will almost certainly conclude that this pandemic not only spread faster around the globe than any previously and sparked the most effective hunt for a vaccine, but also took place amid more actual and expected transparency than ever before.
Think about it. When influenza swept the world a century ago, it was tough for ordinary people, or even politicians, to track what was happening. Indeed, it was difficult to get much real-time transparency a mere decade ago.
When Ebola erupted in Guinea in 2014, for example, a pioneering Boston-based medical start-up, HealthMap, picked up the outbreak early. It then caused shockwaves by issuing an alert and tracking the spread of the virus in a publicly available online tool, using data scraped off the internet. Then, that was novel. Today, this type of monitoring function is commonplace.
During Covid-19, we have all been able to use smartphones to access charts showing how the disease is moving. With a few taps on the screen, we can find cutting-edge medical research on the efficacy of vaccines, local infection rates and the safety protocols for specific neighbourhoods or institutions, such as restaurants or airports. And this type of transparency keeps proliferating.
This is changing consumer — and company — expectations. Take the tale of Abound, a digital platform recently launched by the US company Carrier, which manufactures heating and air-conditioning systems. It uses sensors to track, in real time, the air quality inside buildings, and then displays the results digitally.
As chief executive David Gitlin told me, when Carrier geeks first dreamt up this tech, they presumed that it would be sold to building managers. Now, however, the company hopes to market it for direct consumer use too: their sales pitch argues that individuals will eventually be able to use their smartphones to find out more about the safety of buildings, rather than relying on building managers. Digital transparency can change how consumers assess risk.
Of course, data alone is not always enough. Humans suffer from tunnel vision when confronted with a mass of information, ignoring anything that makes them bored or uncomfortable. The total digital data in the world nearly doubled between 2019 and 2021, from 41 zettabytes to 74 zettabytes (that’s 74 trillion gigabytes), according to Statista — but our ability to understand this, or make use of it, has certainly not risen in tandem. Huge pockets of opacity remain.
But on some occasions, transparency can spark change. Consumers who are empowered with digital data can make savvier risk assessments, without relying on governments. Citizens who can track what is (or is not) happening with vaccines may use their political muscle. And if more voters in rich countries understood the need to send vaccines to the developing world, there might be pressure to start supplies flowing more freely.
So I, for one, hope that Malpass’s suggestion is heeded — and a compulsory database of the vaccine contracts is made readily visible, filling in the gaps on the Unicef map. I also hope that Big Pharma might be persuaded to back this radical transparency, and that countries such as China would get involved too.
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