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When a Covid-19 vaccine is found, equal access must be given to poorer countries

It is essential that pharmaceutical companies share the knowledge and information on how each Covid-19 vaccine candidate is produced, writes Baroness Sheehan. | PA Images

4 min read

To treat all priority groups with a Covid-19 vaccine, in all countries, we must scale-up manufacturing to meet global demand. To do this, broad sharing of knowledge is essential.

Covid-19 is a global scourge. As of 1st October this year there were nearly 34 million confirmed cases globally and over 1 million confirmed deaths, and rising. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) the cost to the global economy is a colossal $375 billion every month.

There is no cure. Nor is there a vaccine. The failure rate amongst vaccine candidates is notoriously high, nevertheless, our government have bought six experimental vaccines which show promise, stockpiling 340 million doses. They have not revealed the prices they paid, nor have they said what will happen to the public’s money if the vaccine candidate fails.

“Vaccine nationalism” has taken hold in other nations too – most notably the US. But it is a high-risk strategy because no-one knows which will be the successful candidate out of the few that stand apart from the crowd, if any. A country could get lucky, but what if it doesn’t? Who wants to risk going to the back of the queue?

Moreover, it is becoming clearer to everyone that keeping a lid on localised hotspots is not easy if you want to keep a country economically active, and ultimately to do that you have to trade – you have to open your borders.

It makes sense for the world to work collaboratively. The imperative to do this has been underscored by the unholy scramble over rRemdesivir earlier this year, when America bought up almost all the available supply from drug company Gilead, leading to rationing in the NHS and throughout Europe.

Let’s face it, when a safe and effective vaccine is found, supply will vastly outstrip demand and the remdesivir debacle will look like a stroll in the park. Who will oversee the mad scramble that’ll ensue, and ensure that the vaccine is distributed in an orderly way to governmental health agencies and healthcare organisations, and that poorer countries get their equitable share?

There is a solution. The World Health Organisation (WHO), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation have come together to offer a framework under which these challenges can be openly and transparently addressed. Their COVAX Facility now has the interest of 173 countries. The UK is on board, with the latest addition being China - the US and Russia are the notable absentees.

To date, nine CEPI-approved candidate vaccines are being fast-tracked, among them the Oxford Uni/Astrazeneca one, with nine more under evaluation. The initial aim is to have 2 billion doses available by the end of 2021, to protect frontline health and care workers and some high risk and vulnerable people.

But to be able to treat all priority groups in all countries will require a huge effort to scale-up manufacturing to meet global demand. To do this it is essential that pharmaceutical companies share the knowledge and information on how each Covid-19 vaccine candidate is produced.

A number of initiatives have been proposed to do this. One is through supporting the waiver to parts of the TRIPS (Trade Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement that is being put forward by South Africa and India in a meeting of the TRIPS council this week. The aim is to remove obstacles to the deep data and know-how sharing required for manufacturing as well as future research for Covid-19 vaccines, therapies and diagnostics.

In a similar way the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), a separate mechanism being proposed by the WHO, brings together pledges of commitment to voluntarily share Covid-19 health technology related knowledge, intellectual property and data.

This broad sharing is essential. It will transform our ability to fight this disease - and go some way to meeting citizens’ right to access medicines as part of the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health as enshrined in the international Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Our Government has not yet pledged its support. It should do so – and help lead the fight to rid us of this scourge. Compared to our monthly loss of GDP, the cost involved is peanuts.


Baroness Sheehan is a Liberal Democrat Life peer and Liberal Democrat Lords spokesperson for international development.

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