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Push for equity of access to Covid-19 vaccines

Leading figures call for global leadership in making vaccines available to lower-income countries

Global health leaders have said all nations must have equal access to Covid-19 vaccines if the coronavirus pandemic is to be ended.

As of 27 April there were 119 vaccine candidates being developed around the world, by one estimate, with human trials underway in China, Germany, the US, Canada and the UK. But concerns have already been raised about ‘vaccine nationalism’ and the risk that the country producing the first successful vaccine may claim priority access.

“The tough question is going to be for the first tens of millions of doses, who should get it. Ideally it should not depend on the country that is manufacturing the vaccine,” said Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organization (WHO), in response to a question from Research Professional News.

Seth Berkley, chief executive of global vaccine partnership Gavi, also stresses that global leadership is required to guarantee equal access.

“We can’t have a repeat of the 2009 H1N1 vaccine situation where there was not enough supply,” he said at a virtual symposium held by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine on 29 April.

On 24 April the WHO launched a multilateral effort to speed up equitable access to Covid-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. But while a string of heads of state from around the world spoke in support of the ACT Accelerator, both the United States and China were conspicuous by their absence.

“In an ideal world we should have consensus…we know that is not the case and it’s going to require a fair amount of negotiation,” Swaminathan said. But she sees reasons to remain optimistic, including pharmaceutical companies not exercising their patents and sharing licenses with companies in low-income countries.

“We have seen things happen during this pandemic that we would never have expected before,” she said. “There are signals that people are approaching this differently.”

Aurelia Nguyen, director of the vaccines and sustainability department at Gavi, said national efforts to secure vaccine supplies could backfire, as at this point it is not clear which if any of the scores of vaccines in development will actually work.

“Enlightened self-interest” means a global approach is necessary, she said: “Until all countries are protected, no countries are protected.”