The following is part of a series of Catalyst posts detailing each of the five strategies to advance COVID-19 global vaccine equity – which rely on and benefit from a strong innovation ecosystem.
Since the emergency use authorization of the first COVID-19 vaccine in December 2020, health experts have underscored that in order to combat the pandemic, vaccines must be widely available, accessible and reach people worldwide. To help make this a reality, the biopharmaceutical industry, governments and other stakeholders have been working tirelessly to scale up manufacturing and production and establish mechanisms for vaccine dose sharing to support equitable access globally. Today, COVID-19 vaccines have been administered across 180 countries, and production is expected to climb to 11 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021.
Despite unprecedented collaboration in both the private and public sectors, including more than 300 manufacturing and production agreements, more needs to be done to address COVID-19 vaccine equity. Removing several significant trade and regulatory barriers that impede efficient global vaccine manufacturing and production is a critical step to close the global vaccine access gap. These barriers include tariffs, export restrictions and inefficient or inadequate customs procedures, trade facilitation measures and regulatory requirements.
For example, tariffs and export restrictions on finished vaccines slow the global response to COVID-19 by limiting the ability of people in countries throughout the world to acquire life-saving vaccines. Tariffs and export restrictions on raw materials needed for the vaccine production also slow the global response to COVID-19 by disrupting vaccine manufacturing processes and undermining efforts to promote equitable global vaccine distribution.
The vaccine manufacturing process relies on a complex global network of suppliers that source the raw materials and equipment needed for vaccine production. One COVID-19 vaccine, for example, requires 280 components, relies on 86 suppliers in 19 different countries and utilizes three different manufacturing plants for production. Other industries also depend on many of these same raw materials and equipment, which means that vaccine manufacturers must compete for these essential supplies. The imposition of a tariff or export restriction on any one of these components impedes global vaccine production and distribution.
In addition to being dependent on a vast network of raw materials and equipment suppliers, the vaccine production process depends heavily on highly skilled technical workers, trained to execute specialized and critical functions across the vaccine manufacturing lifecycle. Currently, vaccines are being produced in approximately 70 countries, all of which are home to collaborative efforts to close the vaccine gap. A highly skilled workforce is required on the ground wherever vaccine production occurs, and governments should prioritize the movement of these necessary workers for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing.
These and other trade and regulatory barriers hamper the manufacturing process and have direct consequences for global vaccine production and supply. While some critics have proposed waiving international commitments to honor intellectual property rights as a silver bullet “solution” to vaccine equity challenges, health, trade and industry experts agree that this approach overlooks the real challenges to improved vaccine distribution worldwide. In order to realize meaningful improvements in production and distribution, leaders and stakeholders must examine the real barriers to access and coalesce around solutions that tangibly address the most pressing challenges countries around the world are currently facing.