America’s biopharmaceutical companies have successfully researched, developed and distributed billions of doses of multiple vaccines and therapeutics to halt the spread of COVID-19. The availability of COVID-19 vaccines has shifted the trajectory of the pandemic and is undoubtedly saving lives. Further, the approval of the first ever mRNA vaccines has the potential to usher in an era of groundbreaking mRNA applications beyond COVID-19.
But the transformative promise of these vaccines only extends as far as patients’ ability to access them. Equitable distribution worldwide is critical. Despite significant cross-sector and multi-stakeholder efforts like COVAX, we are still seeing vaccine access and distribution challenges across many regions of the world due to complex barriers.
Unfortunately, some have focused their attention on a short-sighted and misguided “solution” that seeks to waive international commitments to honor intellectual property (IP) rights for COVID-19 vaccines under the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The approach fails to examine and address the real barriers to equitable vaccine distribution and could undermine the global pandemic response.
Biopharmaceutical manufacturers, governments and non-governmental organizations must work together to take urgent steps to further address this inequity by:
Stepping Up Dose Sharing
A handful of countries secured contracts for COVID-19 vaccines during the early research and development phases, and as a result, have a larger supply of vaccines than needed. Manufacturers and governments in these countries must continue to work together to urgently and responsibly redirect meaningful proportions of these doses to low- and middle-income countries through COVAX and other established mechanisms.
Continuing to Optimize Production
The vaccine manufacturing process depends on a complex global network of suppliers of raw materials and equipment. The scale and speed at which these vaccines must be produced to keep up with the current demand is unprecedented. To address this challenge, vaccine manufacturers must work with governments and suppliers to undertake all practicable efforts to maximize COVID-19 vaccine output without compromising safety and quality.
Calling out Trade Barriers
To ensure supply chains are globally integrated, and for distribution systems to work efficiently, officials must remove trade barriers. It is critical that governments, in coordination with the WTO, work to eliminate all trade and regulatory barriers standing in the way of vaccine distribution and the procurement of the raw materials and components needed for the manufacturing process.
Supporting Country Readiness
Serious gaps in readiness across a significant number of countries need to be swiftly addressed to ensure that supplied doses are used and not destroyed. We urgently need cross-stakeholder collaboration—particularly in low- and middle-income countries—that supports vaccine roll-out and ensures countries are ready and able to deploy vaccines as efficiently as possible.
Driving Further Innovation
While the development of COVID-19 vaccines has been a remarkable feat, stakeholders must continue to prioritize policies and legal mechanisms that foster a strong innovation ecosystem, supported by IP incentives. Without this commitment to continuous innovation, our ability to swiftly address emerging COVID-19 variants and future pandemics is hindered.
The COVID-19 innovations available today would not have been possible without strong IP systems that encourage innovation, protect novel ideas, enable critical partnerships and incentivize continued progress against deadly diseases. To ensure that patients around the world can access and realize the benefits of this astonishing progress, governments, the biopharmaceutical industry and non-governmental organizations must invest in solutions that comprehensively address the real issues driving inequities in vaccine distribution. America’s biopharmaceutical companies are focused on saving lives. Right now, that means more vaccines in more arms in countries around the world – without sacrificing safety or endangering production supply chains.
Megan Van Etten Megan Van Etten is senior director of public affairs at PhRMA. She is responsible for leading the association’s public affairs efforts on international issues, including trade, intellectual property and access to medicines. Prior to joining PhRMA, Megan was director of media and external communications at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and communications director at the Beer Institute. She has also worked as a communications consultant for global public relations firms. When not at the office, Megan enjoys exploring new Washington, D.C. restaurants and traveling with her husband and friends.