Humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders on Monday urged BioNTech—one of the makers of a Covid-19 vaccine—to share its vaccine technology with the world to lessen the stark inequality in dose access and save lives.
The demand from the group, also known Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), came on the eve of BioNTech’s virtual shareholder meeting and amid concerns over the emergence of new coronavirus variants.
Germany-based BioNTech partnered with U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer to create, thanks in part to strong public funding, a vaccine using messenger RNA (mRNA) technology. The Pfizer-BioNTech jabs have been administered in over 100 countries.
But even with multiple Covid-19 vaccines created, the vaccination rate for Africa is just 3.1 doses per 100 people. In North America, by contrast, the rate is 69 doses per 100 people. It’s 60 doses per 100 people in Europe. Such imbalance along with obstruction of a vaccine-related temporary intellectual property rights waiver proposal at the World Trade Organization has fueled accusations of “vaccine hoarding” by richer nations.
“Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of local production to address health emergencies, strengthen regional health security, and expand sustainable access to health products.”
Lara Dovifat, campaign and advocacy adviser for MSF’s Access Campaign, addressed that divide in a statement Monday, saying that the crisis must be countered with an urgent ramp-up in global vaccine production, which could be enabled if only Big Pharma would democratize its vaccine knowledge.
“We’re facing massive vaccine access inequity across the globe for Covid-19. Yet right now, several countries have manufacturing capacity that could be used to produce mRNA vaccines to help alleviate this deadly imbalance,” Dovifat said.
“But to do so,” she continued, “we need BioNTech and other companies making mRNA vaccines to share the technology and knowledge needed to make these vaccines.”
“The faster companies share the know-how, the faster we can put an end to this pandemic and be better prepared for future ones with more distributed production capacity globally, including in the Global South,” she added.
MSF says that multiple African companies stand ready to produce a mRNA vaccine—they just need the technology and knowledge transferred.
The aid group further noted the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was developed with significant public funding, adding to calls it must be a “people’s vaccine.”
Sharing the vaccine recipe with other manufacturers including those in Africa “would be a first step towards African-made vaccines, contribute to the continent’s preparedness for future pandemics, and reduce its dependence on vaccine imports, while guaranteeing that people across countries in Africa get timely access to these lifesaving health tools,” Christian Katzer, general director of MSF Germany, said in a statement.
“The German government has an opportunity and an obligation to leverage its investments and urge technology sharing to boost vaccine production globally. Doing so,” said Katzer, “will help save as many lives as possible, as soon as possible.”
MSF’s call came the same day the World Health Organization (WHO) announced plans for a mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub in South Africa that brings together public and private partners.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus—who’s previously blasted “scandalous” vaccine inequality—called the development “great news, particularly for Africa, which has the least access to vaccines.”
“Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of local production to address health emergencies, strengthen regional health security, and expand sustainable access to health products,” he said.
According to a press statement from WHO:
Technology transfer hubs are training facilities where the technology is established at industrial scale and clinical development performed. Interested manufacturers from low- and middle-income countries can receive training and any necessary licenses to the technology. WHO and partners will bring in the production know-how, quality control, and necessary licenses to a single entity to facilitate a broad and rapid technology transfer to multiple recipients.
The technology transfer hub will benefit from the Medicines Patent Pool’s (MPP’s) vast experience of intellectual property (IP) management and issuing of IP licenses. MPP is also assisting WHO to negotiate with technical partners and supporting in the governance of the hubs.
The tech transfer hub development was also welcomed by U.S.-based advocacy group Public Citizen, which pointed to its recent analysis showing how it was possible to establish regional manufacturing hubs to produce eight billion coronavirus vaccine doses in less than a year and said that the “fruits of research and manufacturing should be shared openly with humanity.”
“Africa, Asia, and Latin America have been left especially vulnerable to Covid-19, due to wealthy countries purchasing the available scarce supplies, and corporations holding secret the vaccine know-how that the world needs to expand production. WHO’s regional vaccine production hubs could mitigate these travesties, which have contributed to suffering and death,” said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program.
“It is possible to make enough mRNA vaccine for the world within a year,” said Maybarduk. He also called on U.S. President Joe Biden and other world leaders to “offer funding, technical capacity, and political support to share vaccine recipes and accelerate WHO’s plans to make a difference not only against future pandemics, but also against Covid-19 today.”
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