A researcher works on virus replication in order to development a vaccine against the coronavirus Covid-19, in Belo Horizonte, state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, on March 26, 2020. - The Ministry of Health convened The Technological Vaccine Center of the Federal University of Minas Gerais laboratory to conduct research on the coronavirus COVID-19 in order to diagnose, test and develop a vaccine. (Photo by Douglas MAGNO / AFP) (Photo by DOUGLAS MAGNO/AFP via Getty Images)
Poorer nations are beginning to fear they will be last in the queue when a Covid-19 vaccine arrives © Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty

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Around the world researchers are working overtime to develop a vaccine against Covid-19. More than 120 projects and over 1,000 clinical trials are under way. Policymakers know that a safe, effective vaccine holds out the best hope of a return to some form of normality. There is no guarantee of success but it is little wonder that the fight has already begun over who will go to the front of the queue when the vaccine’s time comes.

Western governments, anxious to secure supplies for their citizens, are helping to fund vaccine development costs. The US, as part of its “Operation Warp Speed” effort to make a vaccine available to Americans by next year, has moved quickly to commit funds to various initiatives. Its latest deal saw it pledge $1.2bn to Britain’s AstraZeneca. The agreement will pay for a 30,000-person vaccine trial in America, as well as the ramp-up of manufacturing capacity, a costly activity.

Poorer nations, meanwhile, rightly fear being left behind. Leaders from developing nations have called for a “people’s vaccine” that should be patent free, produced at scale and made available at no cost.

Given what is at stake, such tensions are understandable. But this is not the time for vaccine nationalism. It is in every nation’s interest to act collectively: in the fight against Covid-19, no one is safe unless everyone is safe. If the infection continues to rage in one country, then all others remain at risk. The world cannot afford to ignore the weakest link. Governments must find ways to ensure — as far as possible — that equitable access is available, if and when a vaccine becomes available.

This will require co-operation on a global scale. Developing countries should have the ability to enable domestic generic manufacturers to produce a vaccine cheaply. Tiered pricing to reflect countries’ ability to pay is a sensible approach. Non-exclusive voluntary licensing must also be an option.

AstraZeneca last week said it was engaging with international bodies such as the World Health Organization “for the fair allocation and distribution of the vaccine around the world”. Pharmaceutical executives will realise that being seen to profit from this pandemic will not play well in the court of public opinion. The US drugmaker Gilead Sciences found this out early on in the crisis. After coming under fire, the company withdrew its request for special “orphan drug” status of a possible treatment for the virus which would have given it an extra seven years of exclusivity.

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The World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) agreement — if used effectively by member states — is compatible with these objectives. If required, it also allows for intellectual property protections to be overridden in times of public health emergency. In addition, existing provisions in patent law in several countries also allow governments to ignore patent protection if it is necessary for the public good.

The US last week rejected wording of a resolution put forward at the WHO’s annual assembly that would have encouraged the use of Trips. This is the wrong signal to put out at times of crisis. It comes as Donald Trump’s administration is already trying to undermine the WHO just when its role in coordinating best practice is vitally needed. Washington should also realise that it will have enough problems trying to ensure equitable distribution of a vaccine within its own borders.

The scale of the crisis is such that no one country or company can have a monopoly on a Covid-19 vaccine. Fighting the pandemic is a shared interest.

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