Public health coalition urges Biden to create vaccine 'manufacturing operation for the world'

Public health coalition urges Biden to create vaccine 'manufacturing operation for the world'
(Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, U.S. Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, and U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson, delivers remarks during an event to announce the President's Combatant Commanders nominees Monday, March 8, 2021, in the East Room of the White House.

A coalition of 66 global health, development, and humanitarian groups on Tuesday urged President Joe Biden to establish a global vaccine manufacturing program to end the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and prepare for future ones.

"Even as our country expands access to Covid-19 vaccines through the broadest vaccination campaign in U.S. history, for most of the world, there is no relief in sight," wrote more than five dozen organizations, led by Public Citizen, in a letter (pdf) sent to the White House. "Few of the billions of people living in low- and middle-income countries will be vaccinated against Covid-19 this year. Many may not be vaccinated until 2024, if ever. Virus variants threaten to deepen and prolong the crisis."

As Common Dreams reported earlier this week, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus estimated in a recent address that of the more than 700 million coronavirus vaccine doses that have been administered across the globe, just 0.2% have gone to people in low-income nations—a manifestation of inequality that progressive critics, including the People's Vaccine Alliance, which endorsed the letter, have dubbed "vaccine apartheid."

"The only way to get the pandemic under control," the groups continued, "is to accelerate global vaccine manufacturing. The United States has capabilities to help the world make billions more doses of Covid-19 vaccine for about $3 a dose, a fraction of the cost of inaction, and shorten the pandemic."

Emphasizing the urgent need to "end the pandemic and build vaccine infrastructure for the future," the coalition asked Biden to announce in his fiscal year 2022 budget a global vaccine manufacturing program that can "help the world produce billions more vaccine doses within approximately one year." According to the groups behind this effort, "U.S. leadership is likely to inspire co-funding by other governments and international organizations."

The coalition's proposal to "retrofit vaccine manufacturing facilities and install additional mRNA production lines," a move that was first pushed by Public Citizen in February, calls for the U.S. government to make "a total investment of less than $25 billion, including whole-of-government efforts to source raw materials and provide technical assistance."

Nancy Aossey, president and CEO of International Medical Corps, said in a statement that "the increasingly connected nature of today's world and the risks that we consequently share" makes it "vital that we act proactively and decisively to address those risks."

"The U.S. has the intellectual and financial resources necessary to help lead this initiative, working across borders with other governments, and with international health agencies, to end this and future pandemics," Aossey added.

A $25 billion investment to "support the rapid production of eight billion doses of mRNA vaccine, enough for more than half the world's population," is a small fraction of the $800 billion to $1.4 trillion the U.S. economy stands to lose if the current vaccine apartheid persists and virus mutations are given a chance to emerge.

"Without a vaccine manufacturing plan of global ambition, millions more people may die, with tens of millions pushed into extreme poverty," the coalition wrote. "Black and Brown communities will bear the brunt of this preventable suffering."

In addition to boosting vaccine production at home, the letter states, "the U.S. should support a massive expansion of manufacturing and establish hubs for vaccine production with the WHO, including hubs located in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. These hubs will democratize production and improve global health security, particularly if they are accountable to the public and equipped with adaptable technologies, such as mRNA platforms, believed critical to defeating the next pandemic."

As Common Dreams has reported, dozens of progressive lawmakers and hundreds of civil society groups have demanded that drugmakers be required to share vaccine recipes with manufacturers in developing countries, where inoculation rates are far lower.

Through its massive army of lobbyists, Big Pharma has been fighting the India and South Africa-led proposal to temporarily waive the World Trade Organization's patent protections, which currently enable a few private companies to monopolize knowledge and technology related to Covid-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines.

Suspending coronavirus-related patents is supported by 70% of the U.S. public and more than 100 countries, but the leaders of a handful of wealthy nations have opposed such a move. Biden, however, is reportedly considering throwing Washington's support behind the initiative after months of U.S. obstruction.

The coalition's letter calls for the U.S. to "ensure that technology is shared openly, including via the WHO Covid-19 Technology Access Pool, so that scientists and manufacturers worldwide can support vaccine delivery and development."

"Where necessary, the U.S. government should use its power under existing law to license technology, ensuring its availability and affordability now and for the future," the groups added. "Notably, taxpayers made substantial investments in Covid-19 vaccine research and development, and the U.S. government owns a key patent relied on by the major vaccine makers."

The letter comes ahead of a fundraising conference Thursday, hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for COVAX, the United Nations' effort to boost impoverished countries' access to Covid-19 vaccines.

While "the commitments planned for COVAX are critically important," said Abby Maxman, Oxfam America CEO, they are "entirely inadequate to meet global need."

"Without urgent new manufacturing commitments, billions of people may wait years for a vaccine," Maxman added. "Vaccine donations alone won't end the pandemic."

Ultimately, ending the Covid-19 pandemic that has taken the lives of nearly three million people around the world requires "much more ambitious U.S. leadership," said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen's Access to Medicines program.

"The U.S. government," Maybarduk added, "should establish, urgently, a manufacturing operation for the world that would share vaccine recipes and work with the WHO to alleviate suffering and bring billions of additional vaccine doses to humanity."

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