Pamela Fralick, President, Innovative Medicines Canada
This article originally appeared in iPolitics on February 23, 2022.
COVID-19 continues to be a major public health challenge with lives and livelihoods at risk until everyone’s protected. While vaccines have proven to be the most effective tool to protect against serious illness, hospitalization, and death, they’re still not reaching enough patients in many countries. Nations need to focus squarely on solutions to distribution challenges to turn vaccines into vaccinations everywhere in 2022.
In the last two years, research-based pharmaceutical companies, governments, and other key agencies have come together to achieve the unthinkable. In 2021 alone, more than 11.2 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses were produced, according to the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA). This is more than twice the annual vaccine output prior to the pandemic. Voluntary partnerships, licensing, and industry-led technology transfers were instrumental in making this happen. It’s truly a triumph that, less than two years after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic, numerous safe and effective vaccines have been developed, approved, and widely administered in many countries.
But our work isn’t finished. Innovative Medicines Canada (IMC) and our member companies recognize the importance of vaccine equity and are committed to continuing our work with governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other stakeholders to help solve this complex challenge. The emphasis, however, needs to be on mitigating the complex supply chain and administrative barriers that exist, not on vaccine supply and intellectual property (IP) rights.
In fact, it’s thanks to a robust, global IP system that the industry has been able to safely develop and distribute COVID-19 vaccines as quickly as it has. Clear and predictable IP measures provide innovators with the confidence to invest time and resources into research and development that spans many years. IP also streamlines the often-difficult undertaking to transfer technologies to expert manufacturing partners who are equipped to produce the required volumes, while upholding the highest quality and safety standards.
The supply chain required to manufacture vaccines is extremely complex and involves many logistical challenges, making partnerships to accelerate production complex. For example, Pfizer relies on over 280 components from 86 suppliers in 19 countries to produce its COVID-19 vaccine. Through focused efforts to increase manufacturing, in addition to rigorous processes to build up scale through partnerships, Pfizer was able to produce three billion doses in 2021. Similarly, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has partnered with global manufacturing sites and partners in the U.S., India, South Africa, and Europe to produce its COVID-19 vaccine. J&J also further partnered with Merck and Sanofi, both experienced vaccine manufacturers, to boost production and meet global supply needs.
With more than a billion COVID-19 vaccine doses now being produced every month, as reported by IFPMA, it’s clear that distribution and administration, not supply, are the primary challenges at hand. Vaccine hesitancy also contributes to the lack of widespread adoption despite sufficient supply in many regions, and awareness campaigns that communicate the safety and benefits of vaccines will continue to be important, including IFPMA’s #TeamVaccines initiative. To achieve the WHO’s target of vaccinating 70 per cent of the world’s population by June 2022, partnerships between industry, IMC, its member companies, and governments need to continue to identify and address the social, regulatory, and supply chain barriers to shots in arms.
COVAX is a crucial global partnership to help close this distribution gap. In 2021, COVAX delivered over 900 million vaccines to 144 countries in 2021. To continue its efforts, COVAX is seeking USD$5.2 billion from the international community to support the delivery and administration of vaccines, as well as for ancillary costs like syringes. IMC commends the Government of Canada for its commitment to donating at least 200 million additional vaccine doses to COVAX by the end of 2022, along with much-needed financial support to COVAX for procurement and delivery of vaccines. In addition to dose donations, Canada is one of the very few nations that covers the ancillary costs for vaccines it donates, and this contribution is vital for COVAX to continue its important work.
The powers of science and collaboration have enabled an unprecedented global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But there’s still work to do to get everyone vaccinated. Increased cooperation and collaboration will be the key drivers to finally put COVID-19 behind us in 2022.