Trade barriers ‘block global COVID-19 vaccine goals’

SA President at vaccine production line
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in March 2021 on a visit to the Aspen Pharmacare sterile manufacturing facility in the country's eastern province. Copyright: GCIS. (CC BY-ND 2.0). This photo has been cropped.

Speed read

  • Manufacturers say bottlenecks are thwarting equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines
  • Nearly 10 billion doses are needed by March 2022 to stem pandemic - World Bank
  • WHO proposes ‘technology transfer hubs’ to scale up manufacturing in global South

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Efforts to scale up manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines and ensure fair access globally are being stymied by major bottlenecks which must be resolved urgently to tackle the pandemic, say vaccine industry players.

Almost 10 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines are needed to achieve worldwide herd immunity against the virus by March 2022, according to a World Bank Report on how to end the pandemic.

Vaccine industry groups warn the target is only feasible if trade barriers and export restrictions on the global movement of vaccine components are removed immediately.

“We are in the race against variants. We have to come up with a solution that doesn’t make things worse but gets us where we need to go in the fastest possible way.”

Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO, Biotechnology Innovation Organization

Thomas Cueni, head of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, said there were “realistic chances” of reaching the 10 billion doses target, but only if supply chain bottlenecks are resolved.

Otherwise, manufacturers face “a challenge in fulfilling our promises not only to people in our countries who are still waiting for vaccination, but particularly to people in developing countries,” he a told a media briefing on 23 April held virtually in Washington DC, Geneva and Hyderabad.

“We can’t afford to fail,” Cueni added.

Presently, the vaccine industry is plagued by a critical shortage of input materials in the supply chain, says Rajinder Suri, chief executive officer of the Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network (DCVMN).

Suri says export restrictions stemming from the US Defense Production Act (DPA) have had implications for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout across the world, impeding the free movement and availability of single-use materials such as plastic bags, cell culture supplies, serums, adjuvants, filters and bio-reactors.

“If any one or some of the components are missing, the entire supply chain comes to a grinding halt. And this is going to be the biggest bottleneck if not resolved,” warned Suri, calling for increased investment to ramp up manufacturing capacity, especially in developing countries.

“This [investment] is being supported by governments in various countries, including India and China and Brazil but it would require a sustained amount of funding and therefore a lot of efforts from global agencies will be required to make sure that the ramping up is smooth,” he added.

The US government said this week it will immediately provide raw materials for production of the vaccine in India as the country battles a devastating second wave of infections. At least 300,000 new cases have been reported every day for the last week, with nearly 18 million cases recorded overall.

Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, says the DPA, which was designed to procure materials and services essential to national security, “was well-intentioned but somewhere misguided.”

“We need to get those raw materials out, with the limited manufacturing capacity that exists around the globe,” she said, proposing a cautious approach to resolving intellectual property challenges while taking into account the additional threat of emerging COVID-19 variants.

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“We are in the race against variants. We have to come up with a solution that doesn’t make things worse but gets us where we need to go in the fastest possible way,” she added.

The World Bank’s target of 10 billion vaccine doses to beat the pandemic is based on more than 275 manufacturing deals that have already been sealed, 214 of which include various forms of collaborations that rely on technology transfer.

Sai Prasad, president of the DCVMN, said that while technology transfer should be encouraged, innovators must first be matched with manufacturers.

“Vaccines are a very complex base and require complex science, and manufacturing a complicated process, so we need to be careful to whom we transfer the technology if they can receive it well,” he said.

The warning comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) seeks to facilitate the establishment of technology transfer hubs in low- and middle-income countries to scale up manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines.

A “hub and spoke model” will be used to transfer the technology and skills needed to produce the vaccine to manufacturers in the global South, the WHO said in its expression of interest.

“This initiative will initially prioritise the mRNA-vaccine technology but could expand to other technologies in the future,” it added.

Eliangiringa Kaale, a professor in medicine quality assurance and regulatory affairs at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences in Tanzania said the initiative was “both an opportunity and a challenge”.

“Looking at the African manufacturer landscape and more so [in particular countries], you will see that they are variable in terms of economic and technological stages,” he told SciDev.Net.

While companies based in countries like South Africa or Egypt might be well placed to manufacture vaccines, in Sub-Saharan Africa “perhaps it will take some years before they can come to a maturity level of engaging in mRNA technology,” he added.

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