Coronavirus Vaccine: Available For All, or When it's Your Turn?

Despite high-level commitments and pledges to cooperate to ensure equitable global access to a coronavirus vaccine, prospects for fair distribution are uncertain.

Expert comment Published 4 May 2020 Updated 15 September 2020 2 minute READ
Researcher in Brazil working on virus replication in order to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus. Photo by DOUGLAS MAGNO/AFP via Getty Images.

Researcher in Brazil working on virus replication in order to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus. Photo by DOUGLAS MAGNO/AFP via Getty Images.

When the H1N1 influenza pandemic struck in 2009, some industrialized countries were well prepared. Many countries’ preparedness plans had focused on preparing for an influenza pandemic and based on earlier alerts over the H5N1 ‘bird flu’ virus, countries had made advanced purchase or ‘sleeping’ contracts for vaccine supplies that could be activated as soon as a pandemic was declared. Countries without contracts scrambled to get supplies after those that already had contracts received their vaccine.

Following the 2009 pandemic, the European Union (EU) developed plans for joint-purchase vaccine contracts that any member state could join, guaranteeing the same price per dose for everyone. In 2009, low-income countries were unable to get the vaccine until manufacturers agreed to let 10 per cent of their production go to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The situation for COVID-19 could be even worse. No country had a sleeping contract in place for a COVID-19 vaccine since nobody had anticipated that the next pandemic would be a coronavirus, not an influenza virus. With around 80 candidate vaccines reported to be in development, choosing the right one will be like playing roulette.

These candidates will be whittled down as some will fail at an early stage of development and others will not get to scale-up for manufacturing. All of the world’s major vaccine pharmaceutical companies have said that they will divert resources to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines and, as long as they choose the right candidate for production, they have the expertise and the capacity to produce in huge quantities.

From roulette to a horse race

Our game now changes from roulette to a horse race, as the probability of winning is a matter of odds not a random chance. Countries are now able to try to make contracts alone or in purchasing consortia with other states, and with one of the major companies or with multiple companies. This would be like betting on one of the favourites.

For example, it has been reported that Oxford University has made an agreement with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, with a possibility of 100 million doses being available by the end of 2020. If the vaccine works and those doses materialize, and are all available for the UK, then the UK population requirements will be met in full, and the challenge becomes vaccinating everyone as quickly as possible.

Even if half of the doses were reserved for the UK, all those in high-risk or occupational groups could be vaccinated rapidly. However, as each major manufacturer accepts more contracts, the quantity that each country will get diminishes and the time to vaccinate the at-risk population gets longer.

At this point, it is not known how manufacturers will respond to requests for vaccine and how they will apportion supplies between different markets. You could bet on an outsider. You study the field and select a biotech that has potential with a good production development programme and a tie-in with a smaller-scale production facility.

If other countries do not try to get contracts, you will get your vaccine as fast as manufacturing can be scaled up; but because it is a small manufacturer, your supplies may take a long time. And outsiders do not often win races. You can of course, depending on your resources, cover several runners and try to make multiple contracts. However, you take on the risk that some will fail, and you may have compromised your eventual supply.

On April 24, the WHO co-hosted a meeting with the president of France, the president of the European Commission and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It brought together heads of state and industry leaders who committed to ‘work towards equitable global access based on an unprecedented level of partnership’. They agreed ‘to create a strong unified voice, to build on past experience and to be accountable to the world, to communities and to one another’ for vaccines, testing materials and treatments.

They did not, however, say how this will be achieved and the absence of the United States was notable. The EU and its partners are hosting an international pledging conference on May 4 that aims to raise €7.5 billion in initial funding to kick-start global cooperation on vaccines. Co-hosts will be France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Norway and Saudi Arabia and the priorities will be ‘Test, Treat and Prevent’, with the latter dedicated to vaccines.

Despite these expressions of altruism, every government will face the tension between wanting to protect their own populations as quickly as possible and knowing that this will disadvantage poorer countries, where health services are even less able to cope. It will not be a vote winner to offer a share in available vaccine to less-privileged countries.

The factories for the biggest vaccine manufacturers are in Europe, the US and India. Will European manufacturers be obliged by the EU to restrict sales first to European countries? Will the US invoke its Defense Production Act and block vaccine exports until there are stocks enough for every American? And will vaccine only be available in India for those who can afford it?

The lessons on vaccine availability from the 2009 influenza pandemic are clear: vaccine was not shared on anything like an equitable basis. It remains to be seen if we will do any better in 2020.