Achieving global vaccine equity and tackling new variants
The discovery of a new variant (B188.8.131.529) of COVID-19 in South Africa, with cases emerging across Europe and beyond, is causing flights to be cancelled and new public health restrictions to be put in place as scientists try and assess the potential impact of the newly titled Omicron variant. All this comes on top of a surge in cases across Europe caused by the dominant Delta variant at a time when health systems are already working hard to cope with seasonal winter pressures like flu and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).
The current situation underlines two key priorities in our collective effort to tackle this pandemic. The first is increasing the speed of COVID-19 vaccination for people around the world. The second is continuing to research, develop and deliver new diagnostics, treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, particularly to fight emerging variants and prepare for future pandemics.
Although now postponed, the World Trade Organisation was due to discuss an IP waiver on COVID-19 vaccines in Geneva over the next couple of days. Among other topics to be discussed at the WTO Ministerial meeting was a proposal by some countries to support global vaccine equity by waiving IP on COVID-19 vaccines in the hope that this would increase the production of COVID-19 vaccines. Ensuring people around the world are vaccinated as quickly as possible is a goal we share but the “solution” proposed by those countries was more likely to hinder rather than enhance that effort. At the same time, it would undermine incentives to continue to research new diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19 just as we need them most.
We know from the data that achieving vaccine equity is not simply about production, that tackling new variants and emerging threats is about continued research and development and that that research effort is incentivised by robust intellectual property. Since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, production has increased to 9.3 billion (October 2021), increasing by over 1.2 billion per month. At this rate, by December 2021 that figure will rise to around 12 billion doses. To really address the issue of global vaccine equity there are five clear steps we can take together; stepping up dose sharing between countries, continuing to optimise production, removing any trade barriers that can hamper global supply chains, supporting country readiness to deliver vaccination programmes and driving further innovation.
Initial sequencing of the Omicron variant shows around 50 mutations, 30 of which relate to the spike protein. As a global citizen I want to see everyone involved in the discovery, development and delivery of vaccines work together on the five steps to achieve global coverage against this disease. At the same time, I hope the postponement of the WTO discussion will give people time to reflect on the importance of continuing the research and development into this and others diseases as new threats and variants emerge. Vaccines have proven their effectiveness in reducing hospitalisations and serious illness, we need to continue to leverage the expertise and experience of the research-based industry in getting them to citizens as quickly as possible. That means driving vaccine equity, continuing the research effort and protecting IP.