Global health agencies are planning a scheme to bulk-buy and equitably distribute vaccines around the world. They are watching with dismay as some wealthier countries have decided to go it alone, striking deals with drug-makers to secure millions of doses of promising candidates for their citizens.
The deals - including those agreed by the United States, Britain and the European Union with the likes of Pfizer, BioNtech, AstraZeneca and Moderna - are undermining the global drive, experts say.
“Everybody doing bilateral deals is not a way to optimize the situation,” said Seth Berkley, chief executive of the GAVI alliance which co-leads the scheme called COVAX designed to secure rapid and fair global access to COVID-19 vaccines.
Pfizer said this week it was in concurrent talks with the EU and several of its member states on supplying them with its potential vaccine. Britain announced a deal on Wednesday to secure advanced supplies of potential COVID-19 vaccines from GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi.
This, according to health charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), will further fuel “the global scramble to hoard vaccines by rich countries” and feed “a dangerous trend of vaccine nationalism”.
The concern is that vaccine supply and allocation in this pandemic will echo the last - caused by the H1N1 flu virus in 2009/2010 - when rich nations bought up the available supply of vaccines, initially leaving poor countries with none.
“There is a risk that some countries are doing exactly what we feared - which is every man for himself,” said Gayle Smith, former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development and CEO of the One Campaign, a non-profit aimed at ending poverty and preventable disease.
The United States, China and Russia are not among countries expressing interest in COVAX, according to GAVI. And an EU source said last week that the European Commission, which is the bloc’s executive arm and leads EU talks with drug-makers, has advised EU countries not to buy COVID-19 vaccines via COVAX.
“I am worried,” said Thomas Bollyky, director of the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations. “What is happening with the handful of nations that are locking up supply of vaccine competes with the multilateral supply deals. At the end of the day, vaccine manufacturing is a finite resource. You can expand it, but only so much.”
Experts estimate the world can reasonably hope to have around 2 billion doses of effective COVID-19 vaccines by the end of next year. Berkley of GAVI said, however, that if self-interested countries or regions snapped those up to cover their entire populations - instead of sharing them across nations and protecting the most at-risk people first - the pandemic could not be controlled.
“If you were to try to vaccinate the entire U.S., (and) the entire EU, for example, with two doses of vaccine - then you’d get to about 1.7 billion doses. And if that is the number of doses that’s available, there’s not a lot left for others.” If a handful, or even 30 or 40 countries have vaccines, but more than 150 others don’t, “then the epidemic will rage there” Berkley said.
“This virus ... moves around like lightning. So you’ll end up in a situation where you will not be able to go back to normal. You won’t be able to have commerce, tourism, travel, trade, unless you can get the whole pandemic to be slowed down.” He and Smith and other health experts said ending the pandemic meant ending it globally.