This commentary was originally published on March 5. In response to the announcement Wednesday that President Joe Biden favors a temporary waiver of patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines, Lori Wallach of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch said that negotiations “must also be accompanied by significant increases in funding and technology transfer to boost domestic and international vaccine production capacity so we can end this pandemic and prepare for the next. ”
Despite wealthy countries such as the U.S. ramping up COVID-19 vaccination efforts, it still may take years to vaccinate the world, especially poorer countries, and the economic and humanitarian impacts could be devastating. But an injection of just $25 billion into global vaccine production efforts by the U.S. government could save millions of lives and help prevent economic disaster.
The most up-to-date numbers paint incredibly different futures between wealthy and low-income countries. At the current rate of vaccination, analysts predict that developing countries, including almost all of Southeast Asia, may not reach meaningful vaccine coverage until 2023. Comparatively, President Joe Biden has promised that the U.S. will have enough vaccine doses to inoculate every adult within the next three months.
Ghana, which was the first country to receive a modest shipment of vaccines from the U.N.-backed COVAX distribution initiative, has so far received only 600,000 doses for its population of 31 million. Like the other 91 low-income countries that will receive vaccines through COVAX, it may only receive enough doses to vaccinate 20% of its population by the end of the year—far under the estimate of 75% vaccination rate needed for herd immunity. In comparison, the U.S. is now administering 2 million vaccine doses a day.
And as wealthy countries such as the U.S. are starting to see lower death, transmission and hospitalization rates, low-income countries are experiencing increased hardship and fatalities. Countries such as Hungry are being forced to tighten restrictions as infection rates increase, and deaths in Africa have spiked by 40% in the past month, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
No country can be left behind in this global pandemic, and the U.S. is in a unique position to make sure every country gets the ample amount of vaccines they need.
Public Citizen research has found that just a $25 billion investment in COVID-19 vaccine production by the U.S. government would produce enough vaccine for developing countries, potentially shaving years from the global pandemic. Public Citizen estimates that 8 billion doses of National Institutes of Health-Moderna
vaccine can be produced for just over $3 per dose.
To bolster production and supply the necessary 8 billion doses, it would take $1.9 billion to fund the necessary 25 production lines. Another $19 billion would pay for materials and labor, and $3 billion would compensate Moderna for making technology available to manufacturers in other countries. An additional $500 million would cover costs to staff and run a rapid-response federal program that provides technical assistance and facilitates technology transfer to manufacturers and works with the WHO’s technology hub.
In total, vaccinating the world would cost less than 1.4% the total of Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan.
But such a program also needs to be properly managed to be successful. To help facilitate these efforts, the Biden administration should also designate the government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to lead the world-wide vaccine manufacturing effort. BARDA has the necessary experience to coordinate an initiative of this scale with the WHO, building on its partnership to build pandemic flu manufacturing capacity in developing countries after the bird-flu scare of 2006.
Widespread vaccines would help U.S. economy
These efforts would dramatically increase access to vaccines in developing countries and speed up global vaccination by years, saving countless lives. But allowing the current vaccine supply crisis to continue is not just inhumane, it is also not in our own economic interest to do so.
Opinion: It’s in our direct economic interest to vaccinate the whole world ASAP
The International Chamber of Commerce estimates the global economy could lose up to $9.2 trillion without an increase in global access to vaccines. And the growing threats of new virus mutations could cost the U.S. economy between $45 billion and $1.4 trillion. By significantly shortening the duration of the pandemic, the $25 billion investment would easily pay for itself many times over.
Funding and implementing global vaccine production is the only way to prevent untold loss of human life and another economic downturn, and the power to do so lies with the U.S. Congress and the Biden administration.
Mike Stankiewicz is the press officer for the Access to Medicines program at Public Citizen.