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Vaccine scarcity is not necessary if drug companies share their knowledge

In an initiative by Wemos and Oxfam Novib, we and more than 50 other organizations are calling on the Dutch government to ensure that drug companies share their knowledge of vaccine development with other companies in an existing World Health Organization pool. This will increase global production and availability of Covid-19 vaccines and help end the pandemic more quickly.

Knowledge sharing is the key to vaccine availability and to end the pandemic

Worldwide, governments and companies are making great efforts to stop the Covid-19 pandemic. Now that drug companies have developed the first effective vaccines, governments need to clear the next hurdle: making the vaccines available.

In Europe, we have recently experienced problems with the delivery of both the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines. For low- and middle-income countries, access to vaccines has been a problem for much longer. The reason for this is the limited production capacity of vaccine developers, making it impossible for them to supply the entire world at short notice. The current supply problems make it painfully clear that we are completely dependent on just a few producers.

There is a solution, but it is not being used.

This solution is to share the knowledge and patents for vaccine production in the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) of the World Health Organization (WHO). The Netherlands officially supported C-TAP in 2020, but unfortunately, the government has not yet attached any concrete actions to this. Therefore, we call on the Dutch government to provide financial assistance to C-TAP and to actively engage with drug companies to encourage them to share their knowledge and patents. In this way, the Netherlands can live up to its reputation and pioneering role in the area of access to medicines.

With this commitment, the government will ensure that C-TAP is a success, that the global production capacity of vaccines is maximized, and that the pandemic is ended as soon as possible.

C-TAP contributes to lower prices and increased, global production capacity

WHO established C-TAP in 2020 to remove barriers around intellectual property and knowledge of manufacturing processes to increase access to Covid-19 technologies (drugs, vaccines and diagnostics). C-TAP is, similar to the successful Medicines Patent Pool (MPP), a place where inventors of Covid-19 vaccines can share their patents, knowledge and (technological) know-how with other drug companies. In this way, the MPP has played a key role in the past in increasing the accessibility and affordability of medicines during the HIV and AIDS epidemic, and still contributes to the accessibility of a wide range of medicines.

By sharing manufacturing knowledge and patents, manufacturers enable other drug companies to contribute to global manufacturing capacity. Eighteen generic drug makers have already agreed to help produce pharmaceuticals against Covid-19.2 In low- and middle-income countries, 43 vaccine manufacturers can support production, but only a few have been licensed.3 Simply put, C-TAP can be used to deploy more factories to produce Covid-19 vaccines, allowing them to be distributed around the world more quickly and stopping the pandemic more rapidly. In addition, an increase in production capacity will have a beneficial effect on the price, making the vaccines more affordable. A fair price is of great importance, especially since governments have contributed significantly to the development of vaccines with taxpayer money. Therefore, the WHO has urged all companies that developed Covid-19 vaccines to share their patents and knowledge in C-TAP.4 To date, no drug company has complied.

C-TAP is indispensable for COVAX

The Dutch government has expressed support for COVAX and is contributing financially to this initiative for the worldwide distribution of vaccines. The government is therefore trying to take international responsibility in resolving the pandemic, but this is insufficient. In order to make fair worldwide distribution possible, a structural solution is needed that goes beyond donating vaccines. The speed at which COVAX operates could be greatly improved with a well-functioning C-TAP. This is partly related to the production capacity of drug companies. The production capacity of all the companies that have developed a Covid-19 vaccine combined does not come close to the required capacity. It is therefore necessary for other companies to step in to produce vaccines. If we want a powerful and effective COVAX, we will need to ensure that manufacturers share their patents and knowledge in C-TAP.

C-TAP prevents greater economic damage

RAND Europe previously published results of their research into the costs associated with adhering to so-called vaccine nationalism, whereby wealthy countries primarily buy up vaccines for themselves. The study found that it would cost a one-time USD 25 billion to provide vaccines to lower-income countries. If lower-income countries are not helped and certain regions remain excluded from vaccination, it will cost richer countries USD 119 billion per year. This brings a cost-benefit ratio of 4.8 to 1: for every dollar spent, rich countries would save $4.80. Therefore, if the Netherlands does not contribute to a structural solution for the global distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, Dutch citizens will also suffer the economic consequences for a long time to come.

C-TAP reduces risk of new mutations

Another reason to improve the global accessibility to Covid-19 vaccines is to minimize the risk of mutations. When mutations occur, there is a chance that the effectiveness of a vaccine could decline or that a new variant could make the course of disease more severe. If a larger group of people is vaccinated, then the chance of mutations diminishes. It is therefore in the interest of all of us to maximize accessibility. The pandemic is not over until there is sufficient access to a vaccine everywhere.

C-TAP makes us less vulnerable to production problems

The disappointing supplies from Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca have been widely reported in the news. The Netherlands is also suffering as a result. C-TAP offers a solution for the current capacity problems, but also for possible problems in the future. The more producers make the vaccine, the less vulnerable we are to production problems.

Recommendations for the Dutch government

The Dutch government is already an official “co-sponsor” of C-TAP, however, expressing support is not enough to make C-TAP a success. To ensure C-TAP’s success and make an essential contribution to ending the pandemic, we recommend the Dutch government do the following:

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