Be it government-sanctioned purchases or the private market, the poorest countries will be the last to get rid of the pandemic.
The way Covid-19 vaccines are being manufactured and distributed means that people from developing countries — even those that can afford vaccination at private clinics — are unlikely to get the jab for several months to come.
The Serum Institute of India (SSI), the world’s largest vaccine maker by volume, says some of the doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine that it is making will hit the private market by March.
However, SSI’s CEO Adar Poonawalla has on numerous occasions made it clear that the Indian demand will be met ahead of any of it being exported to other middle or low income countries.
The company plans to sell the vaccine to the Indian government at $3 per dose, while on the private market, it can go for double that price.
SSI says it will be able to produce 400 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine by July 2021. Amid the raging pandemic, which has killed more than 140,000 people in India, New Delhi needs hundreds of millions of doses to inoculate the 1.4 billion population.
AstraZeneca has signed licensing agreements with SSI and a few other producers such as Brazil’s Fiocruz to scale up production.
The arrangement is backed by the COVAX facility, a World Health Organisation-backed initiative, to ensure equitable distribution of Covid-19 treatment to rich and poor countries alike.
Among the frontrunners in the vaccine race, only AstraZeneca has signed such licensing agreements.
Pfizer and Moderna will make their mRNA-based vaccines in their own facilities and have refused to contract out production. The technology for mRNA medicine is new and complex, making licensed manufacturing difficult.
Rich countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and members of the European Union (EU) have snapped up more than half of the world’s supply of the most promising vaccines such as the one being made by Pfizer and BioNtech.
The development of the vaccines has been heavily financed by western governments for the most part - the US alone has handed out $6.5 billion to different companies.
That’s one reason the pharmaceutical firms are hesitant to sell the vaccines on the open market. An executive of Pfizer’s UK operation told the Financial Times the company wasn’t planning to sell the vaccine on the private market.
Doing so will be a violation of deals with governments, which have laid out plans to distribute the doses in accordance with who is most at risk.
The price we pay
Global health experts have argued for months that the Covid-19 vaccine, related treatments and medical supplies, be exempted from patent requirements. This could allow companies around the world, not just a handful of rich nations, to increase production.
Recently, India and South Africa mounted an effort at the World Trade Organisation to get the patents waived off Covid-19 vaccines. The move was opposed by the US, the EU and multinational pharmaceutical companies.
Chinese drug makers, Sinovac and Sinipharm, have stepped in to fill the void left behind by more established multinationals. Their vaccines are undergoing final trials in multiple countries including Brazil, Indonesia, Morocco and Pakistan.
An absence of a collective response to develop and widely distribute a coronavirus vaccine, has raised concerns that rich countries are gobbling up drug supply to meet the needs of their own citizens.
A group of rich countries, representing 13 percent of the world’s population, have reserved around half of the vaccine supply already, according to Oxfam.
The US, the UK, the EU, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Switzerland and Israel have signed deals with manufacturers to get their hands on 51 percent of doses when production starts.
Instead of coming together with a joint strategy, some of the most financially well-off nations have pre-ordered supplies.
Governments choosing to prioritise their own people could lead to disruptions in global supply chains, as seen when nations started to hoard face masks and medical protective gear at the start of the pandemic.
Vaccines, which work by enhancing the immune response to the virus, generally take years to be developed. The urgency to deal with coronavirus, however, has forced developers to accelerate the process into months.