Poor countries could be left behind in the fight against coronavirus as wealthier nations scramble to buy up doses of a potential Covid-19 vaccine, campaigners have warned.
On Wednesday, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech announced its coronavirus vaccine had proven more than 90% effective in trials, leading one the of the UK government’s key scientific advisors to declare that life could be back to normal by spring.
No.10 was quick to tell the public that the UK has procured 40m doses of the Pfizer vaccine, with 10m set to be manufactured by the end of the year if the jab is approved by regulators.
The US has also secured a deal for 100m doses of the vaccine, with another 500m available if needed.
But with Pfizer only able to produce 50m doses of the vaccine by the end of 2020 and another 1.3bn in 2021, global poverty charities and social justice campaigners have warned that people in the poorest parts of the world could be left at the back of the queue for the potentially life-saving vaccines.
“Countries like the UK and US have already bulk bought a huge amount of the medicines, proving that fair global distribution has been set aside by the rich countries in their quest to get their hands on all potential vaccines first,” Nick Dearden, the director of Global Justice Now, told HuffPost UK.
The campaign group has urged Pfizer and BioNTech to put its vaccine into a World Health Organisation (WHO) global patent pool, which would allow others to manufacture and distribute the jab and increase the number of people able to be vaccinated.
Heidi Chow, the organisation’s pharmaceuticals campaigner, warned there was “nowhere near enough” of the Pfizer-manufactured vaccine to meet global demand.
“We are heading towards artificially created scarcity for this vaccine which is completely unacceptable in a global pandemic,” she said.
If Pfizer and BioNTech fail to share the vaccine patent, the WHO must suspend all patents on all Covid-19 medicines, Chow said.
“This is a race against time and we cannot allow the pursuit of profit to triumph over human need.”
Dr Albert Bourla, the chief executive of Pfizer, has previously dismissed the idea of Covid-related intellectual property pools, telling reporters in May: “I think it is nonsense and at this point of time it’s also dangerous.
“There’s a giant effort right now happening to find a solution. The risks we are taking [represent] billions of dollars and the chances of developing something are still not very good.
“So to have a discussion, to say keep in mind that if you discover [a vaccine or drug], we are going to take your IP, I think it’s dangerous,” he said.
Global poverty charity Oxfam has added its voice to calls for Pfizer and BioNTech to share the patent for its coronavirus vaccine, saying the pandemic won’t come to an end “unless the vaccine is available and affordable to everyone”.
“Pfizer’s estimated price for the vaccine is too high and the company cannot produce enough. The vaccine will be 0% effective to the people who can’t access or afford it,” said Niko Lusiani, Oxfam America’s senior advisor.
“In a global pandemic of this magnitude, we must pursue a new path – a people’s vaccine that prioritises public health over private profits.
“No one should have access to a life-saving vaccine only if they live in the right country or have enough money. Governments and corporations must work together to make all Covid-19 treatments and vaccines global public goods.”
On Monday, Pfizer revealed it would be able to produce as many as 1.3bn doses in 2021.
But it has already agreed to supply 120m doses of the vaccine to Japan, 40m to the UK, as many as 600m to the US and as many as 300m to the EU, across differing time scales.
The charity Christian Aid has urged the UK government – along with other G20 governments – to get behind the campaign to make the vaccine accessible.
“The UK and other G20 countries must support the WHO initiative, made at the World Health Assembly in May, to combine research and create a global patent pool, ensuring that all drugs related to the testing, treatment, prevention and response to Covid-19 are immediately accessible and genuinely affordable to all countries,” said Patrick Watt, the charity’s director of policy.
“Today’s announcement could be a turning point in the battle to contain Covid-19 and reduce its huge toll of human suffering,” he added.
“But for that to happen, governments must back the global call for a people’s vaccine that is available to poorer countries as well as the wealthiest. Access to any successful vaccine must not become a global postcode lottery.”
But a spokesperson for Pfizer said the company’s decision-making during the pandemic “is not being driven by traditional cost/benefit analysis”.
“During the pandemic, instead of using a traditional cost-effectiveness approach, we will price in a way that can help governments to ensure that there is little to no out-of-pocket costs for their populations,” they said. “Broad access is important – speed, safety and availability are driving us.”
The spokesperson added: “It is important to note that our Covid-19 vaccine development and manufacturing costs have been entirely self-funded and we have already invested billions of dollars – and are prepared to continue bearing the costs of all development and manufacturing scale-up costs – in an effort to find a solution to this pandemic.
“We are committed to making our Covid-19 vaccine accessible to those at highest risk of Covid-19. We are in discussions with Unicef and the Gates Foundation to provide doses to the Covax facility. Our intention through this potential collaboration is to provide doses to the poorer countries in the world.”
BioNtech has yet to respond to HuffPost UK’s request for comment on this issue. The UK government has also been contacted for its response.