Jul 15, 2021 04:22 PM

Opinion: To Beat Pandemics, the World Needs Greater Capacity to Produce Vaccines

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how crucial it is to have an adequate supply of medical countermeasures. Photo: VCG
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how crucial it is to have an adequate supply of medical countermeasures. Photo: VCG

The Covid-19 pandemic is nowhere near its end. What is worse, new pandemics are likely to endanger global health in the coming decades. Preventing pandemics is a global public good like climate change mitigation: the world needs to act collectively to avoid future episodes like Covid-19.

It should be a priority to fund investments in pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, as argued in a report to the G-20 finance ministers to which we contributed. This financing would fill major gaps in global health security. In the report, we take a conservative approach and focus exclusively on the funding needs for global public goods needed to prevent pandemics. We estimate that $15 billion would be needed annually to improve global pandemic surveillance capacities, improve essential elements of national health systems and, very importantly, the supply of medical countermeasures and tools. Spending on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response delivers by far the best return on any public investment. The International Monetary Fund, for example, estimates that a faster global vaccine roll-out could spare the world $9 trillion in foregone income, while the cost would be in the low double-digit billions.

The pandemic has shown how crucial the adequate supply of medical countermeasures is. So far, the global supply of Covid-19 vaccines has been insufficient with billions of people not yet vaccinated. In a business-as-usual scenario, the IMF estimates that vaccine production could reach 6 billion doses by the end of 2021, enabling vaccination of 45% of the world population. This would leave large regions vulnerable and would not prevent the emergence of new variants. In the early phases of the pandemic, personal protective equipment and other medical equipment were also in short supply. This lack of capacity means more severe human suffering, longer-lasting constraints on our social lives and significant losses in terms of global economic activity.

This dangerous situation requires bold global action. Europe can play a major role in providing the world with vaccines now and for future pandemics. European companies have been at the forefront of developing effective Covid-19 vaccines. European Union policymakers have resisted the temptation to using the production primarily for the domestic market. Instead, about half of the vaccines produced in the EU have been exported — contrasting starkly with many other parts of the world, which gave exclusive priority to their people. The EU can thus rightly claim to be a reliable partner to the rest of the world. And the EU should step up even further. It is in Europe’s interest to vaccinate as many as possible as quickly as possible: no one is safe until all are safe.

Three steps are essential. First, many countries still do not have access to sufficient numbers of vaccine doses. Initiatives such as COVAX have fallen short of what is needed. The June 2021 G-7 pledge to increase the supply of vaccines by 1 billion also falls short. The world clearly needs a global deal. But in the meantime, we advise major players to help the developing world gain access to vaccines. Such support can take the form of donations or grants, or concessional lending to countries for purchase of vaccines. It could also be done through contributions to the COVAX facility. The issue is not only access but also affordability.

Second, as our G-20 report argued, the world needs greater supply capacities for vaccines and other medicines when there is no global pandemic raging. With potential losses of half a trillion dollars a month during 2021, accelerating vaccine production during pandemics brings huge benefits. But building this capacity in ‘peace-time’ requires a certain degree of subsidization. Private firms by themselves do not have sufficient incentives to maintain redundant production capacities. As the world emerges gradually from the pandemic, supporting vaccine supply chains to ensure higher capacities are available will be crucial. Multi-modal manufacturing capacity (mRNA, protein, and virus-based vaccines and therapeutics) can rapidly ramp up production of pandemic-specific medicines and treatments when needed. Financing is needed for manufacturing of multiple prototype pathogen vaccine/diagnostic/therapeutic candidates before outbreaks. Dual-use purposes should be sought for such capacity, which could contribute to controlling endemic diseases and improving health outcomes between pandemics.

Third, production capacities in different regions would make the system more resilient and contribute to a more equitable global distribution of scarce supplies. The Franco-German initiative to boost BioNTech vaccine production in South Africa is a positive example of this. More such initiatives are needed to increase global supply capacities.

Europe has already made a significant financial contribution to beating the pandemic. Supporting global efforts, as recommended in our G-20 report, is a moral imperative and a huge opportunity to combat pandemics. It’s time for all major powers to step up their efforts to control the pandemic and future pandemics.

Anne Bucher is visiting fellow at Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank, and former director general for health at the European Commission. Guntram Wolff is the director of Bruegel.

The views and opinions expressed in this opinion section are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial positions of Caixin Media.

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