Despite a new Public Citizen analysis showing that a $25 billion investment in coronavirus vaccine production by the U.S. government would ensure everyone on the planet is inoculated in a timely fashion, the Biden administration used the G7 summit to pledge just $2 billion in additional support for the United Nations program charged with securing doses for the world's poorest and most vulnerable.
"We want decision-makers to see that there's a tremendous opportunity here to shorten the pandemic and that we have to act on that now in order to be timely."
—Peter Maybarduk, Public Citizen
"While some of those attending the G7 have made welcome steps to increase the supply of vaccines to poor countries, these remain insufficient when compared to the scale of the Covid-19 threat," Max Lawson, head of inequality policy at Oxfam International, said in a statement. "Making huge parts of Africa and Asia wait for unwanted, leftover vaccines from rich countries' stocks is not just immoral, it is irresponsible."
Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen's Access to Medicines program, said in a statement released just ahead of the G7 summit that "the U.S. can help lead the world out of the pandemic if our government acts now."
In the aftermath of the virtual meeting, during which the heads of wealthy states allocated woefully inadequate sums of money to the global vaccination effort, Maybarduk spoke with Common Dreams Monday about the need for Congress and the Biden administration to provide $25 billion in funding to "support the manufacturing of vaccines for more than half the world's people, in time to spare them years of needless suffering."
As Maybarduk pointed out, the $2 billion that the U.S. recently pledged to COVAX—an international initiative established to distribute vaccines to impoverished countries—had already been appropriated by Congress in the last Covid-19 relief package. The Biden administration, however, is "looking at interesting ways to use that money, including $500 million... that may be going specifically to manufacturing investments, which could be quite good."
Calling for "a major infusion of cash and corresponding manufacturing capacity to add vaccine production lines and to purchase drug substance at facilities around the world," Maybarduk said that "we want decision-makers to see that there's a tremendous opportunity here to shorten the pandemic and that we have to act on that now in order to be timely."
"If we want more doses online next year," Maybarduk said, "we have to act and fund it now."
As Common Dreams reported last week, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres lamented the fact that 10 countries had monopolized 75% of the world's Covid-19 vaccines while people in more than 130 countries had yet to receive a single dose.
With a growing Covid-19 death toll—now near 2.5 million—Guterres called on world leaders in the G20 to establish an emergency task force to create a global vaccination plan, adding that the G7 meeting could "help create the momentum to mobilize the necessary financial resources."
Yet, other wealthy countries were even less generous than the U.S., pledging a combined total of only $2.3 billion in additional funding for COVAX. That brought the total amount committed to date to $10.3 billion.
The recent Public Citizen analysis (pdf) showed that with a $25 billion investment in Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing by the U.S. government, eight billion doses of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-Moderna vaccine could be produced for just over $3 per dose, thereby facilitating universal inoculation in developing countries—saving hundreds of thousands of lives and billions in economic output by shortening the duration of the pandemic, perhaps by years.
According to Public Citizen, spending $1.9 billion on retrofitting and building manufacturing facilities around the world, $19.8 billion on materials and labor, and $3.5 billion on technical assistance and compensation for technology transfers would allow lawmakers "to leverage the considerable investment the U.S. public already has made in Covid-19 vaccines, including the ownership rights the U.S. government has in the NIH-Moderna vaccine."
Covid does not respect borders. We cannot allow it to spread unchecked and mutate.— Public Citizen (@Public_Citizen) February 16, 2021
Biden must help the world quickly manufacture vaccines.
If we don't act, a dose may not reach everyone around the world until 2024. https://t.co/0SVmh9Lb6y
The unwillingness of rich countries to take the steps necessary to guarantee rapid universal access to Covid-19 vaccines "is an abject moral failure and will ultimately come to harm G7 countries," Netsanet Belay, research and advocacy director at Amnesty International, said in a statement. "As long as the virus continues to spread and mutate elsewhere, no one is safe until we are all safe."
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"We are calling on G7 leaders to recognize the unique position they are in to change the course of this pandemic and do everything in their power to remove the roadblocks to scaling up global vaccine production," Belay continued.
As Belay also noted, "G7 nations are the major culprits in blocking a proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to suspend intellectual property rights during the pandemic, which would make it easier for other countries and companies to manufacture vaccines."
Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, accused G7 leaders of "presiding over global vaccine apartheid." Emphasizing the injustice of "Big Pharma's patents, which are preventing most countries from producing the vaccines they need," Dearden said that "we know these companies are refusing to share their vaccine recipes with the world, preventing the ramping up of manufacturing that we need. It's time to compel them to."
"Clearly, G7 leaders are feeling some heat over the grotesque inequality of the present situation," he added. "We need to turn it up, and make sure they support South Africa and India's proposal to suspend Covid-19 patents at the WTO next month. It is the fairest and fastest way to accelerate the global vaccine effort."
Calling on the G7 to stop "patting themselves on the back for limited progress," Lawson of Oxfam also asserted that "breaking up the monopolies of the big pharmaceutical companies is the quickest, fairest, and most effective way of boosting vaccine production so that countries are not forced to compete to secure doses."
"We think that a big opportunity to shorten the global pandemic lies in the ability to scale up vaccine production this year."
"The G7 and other rich nations should stop blocking the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights for all Covid-19 vaccines," Lawson added.
Maybarduk agreed that the U.S. government should drop its opposition to South Africa and India's proposed waiver of intellectual property rights during the pandemic and "should affirmatively support the technology access pool at the World Health Organization (WHO), which is a repository of... knowledge inputs to the production of vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics."
At the same time, however, Maybarduk insisted on the importance of "scaling up our manufacturing capacity here in the United States and using the U.S. government's tools to generate manufacturing capacity around the world."
"If you're thinking about the United States only, then you may just be thinking about this six month timetable, which is too short of a timetable to be thinking about vaccine production from scratch at scale," Maybarduk told Common Dreams. "Instead, you're thinking about completing the current batches. And so for that reason there isn't much experimentation in expanding overall production capacity."
"If we start to think globally," Maybarduk continued, "then the pandemic's timeline gets a lot longer and suddenly it makes an awful lot of sense to scale up vaccine production completely—not quite from the ground up but essentially from the ground up. Even though that will take at least six months to do, spending six months could mean shortening the pandemic by a year or two in the Global South."
Stressing the need for international solidarity, Maybarduk said the Biden administration's response "can't be just about the next six months in the United States. It has to be about the world, and if it's about the world then we look at the cost, and we think it's $25 billion dollars to get these production lines set up and buy all the drug substance for them."
"Really what we're calling for is the Biden administration to make a political decision... to shorten the global pandemic, not just the U.S. pandemic," Maybarduk added. "We think that a big opportunity to shorten the global pandemic lies in the ability to scale up vaccine production this year."
While no G7 country has "pressed vaccine producers, whom they have funded with vast sums of public money, to share their knowledge and technology through the WHO and therefore allow more vaccines to be produced," Belay noted, Public Citizen—armed with an analysis showing that the U.S. could help vaccinate the world and end the pandemic years ahead of schedule for as little as $25 billion—is calling for the Biden administration to share knowledge and increase manufacturing capacity.
"In shortening the pandemic, this proposal would pay for itself many times over," Maybarduk said. "It would save hundreds of thousands of lives. It would shorten the period of mitigation measures which are costing trillions in lost economic output. It would make it possible to produce booster shots and reduce the risk of new, vaccine-resistant variants emerging and traveling to the U.S."
"The world's going to have to get vaccinated either way," Maybarduk told Common Dreams. "The longer we delay, the more the pandemic is going to cost everyone."