Just seven months after the outbreak of the pandemic, and even before clinical trials of experimental vaccines ended, the US, Europe and other rich countries have reserved the first doses for themselves.
With developed countries putting in orders for at least 3.1 billion doses, according to a tally, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) head Richard Hatchett is worried.
His job is to ensure that future vaccines against Covid-19 will be shared on an equitable basis around the world.
US President Donald Trump blazed this particular trail – his administration signed contracts guaranteeing at least 800 million doses from six manufacturers for a population of 330 million, to be delivered starting at the end of the year for some of the doses.
Hatchett said in an interview from London: “The US is potentially in a situation of oversupply if all of the vaccines that they’ve invested in are successful.”
The US native said he understood that national leaders are serving their people as a priority, but called on Washington to behave like a global leader and share its doses with other countries.
Hatchett said: “What we need to persuade global leaders is that as a vaccine becomes available in these initially limited quantities, it needs to be shared globally, that it shouldn’t be the case that just a handful of countries get all of the vaccines that is available in the first half of 2021.”
He said he wants to avoid a similar scenario to 2009 at all costs when rich countries managed to bag the first vaccines of the H1N1 swine flu.
An initiative named Covax and backed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), as well as CEPI and the global vaccine alliance group Gavi, aims to buy and equitably distribute two billion doses next year.
Ninety-two developing countries and 80 developed countries have signed on, and the EU on Monday announced a contribution of €400 million ($475 million).
But the US is refusing to join the effort.
White House spokesman Judd Deere on Tuesday said: “We will not be constrained by multilateral organisations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organisation and China.”
Covax has only managed to secure 300 million doses to date from London-listed AstraZeneca Plc, the British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical group that also signed separate partnership deals with the US, Europe, Russia, South Korea, China, Latin America and Brazil.
Nasdaq-listed US biotech company Novavax Inc says it has formed a partnership with an Indian group to produce up to a billion doses of its potential vaccine in India.
CEPI’s negotiations, mainly funded by public and private donations, including from the Gates Foundation, are “ongoing” with other laboratories, but no deal has been announced, not even with the US firm Moderna Inc, in which CEPI invested very early.
The several million dollars given to Moderna are no match for the $2.5 billion invested subsequently by the US government.
Hatchett said: “While we have stayed in close touch with Moderna . . . for that small scale early-stage agreement, you can’t have those kinds of commitments.”
The ideal goal for the WHO is that every country receives vaccinations for 20 per cent of its population, starting with the most vulnerable people no matter what their nationality, including health workers.
Despite the competition, Covax hopes that with 172 members, the initiative will be able to negotiate good prices.
Hatchett added: “That’s one of the reasons that we are asking countries to now make their commitments to the facility so that we know on behalf of how many countries we’re negotiating.
“The more countries that negotiate together, the stronger the purchasing power, and the easier the price.”
But the EU is striking its accords with laboratories, with 1.3 billion doses already acquired, and has not yet said if it will use the WHO facility.
In the longer term, Hatchett says the CEPI still has to raise between $700 and $800 million remaining of the $2.1 billion needed to continue the vaccine research, because there is no guarantee that any of the vaccines currently under development will work.