Access to safe and effective vaccines – a matter of social justice

23 Feb 2021 - 10:30

Germany is host to a number of companies that have or are in the process of developing vaccines for COVID-19.

These companies include established pharmaceutical companies (such as Pfizer) and small start-ups that have emerged as key players in the vaccine environment and lauded for their ‘innovation’ and entrepreneurship. Business sites gush over the “newfound fame” secured by “German biotechs in the spotlight.”

But, as is usually the case, their innovation and entrepreneurship rests on securing public funding to get going.

That is – German government money from the taxpayers of Germany.

Wouters and colleagues report that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine received almost US$ 0.5 billion in government funding to develop their vaccine, while CureVac, a biotech company from Tübingen, received US$ 0.35 billion in combined support from CEPI and the German government to develop a m-RNA vaccine, of which more than three-quarters is German government support. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research was also reported in October as providing 750 million euros to IDT Biologika as national support for the manufacture of vaccines.

These are not insubstantial amounts – close to US$ 2 billion.

However, the public funding of the vaccines has not translated into any clear commitment to ensure that the public, particularly those who can’t afford to pay for patented vaccines, can enjoy the benefits of such scientific progress.

For example, what would it cost to ensure technology transfer of m-RNA methods to producers in South Africa or Senegal to ramp up availability of vaccine to LMICs in Africa? That’s a question to which the answer is hard to find, but since CEPI estimates that the full costs of developing one or more vaccines, inclusive of clinical and process development with scale-up and potential transfer of manufacturing, are likely to be in the range of US$2 billion, then the costs of the technology transfer for ensuring that these new vaccines can be produced in other settings, should surely be built into the very large subsidies that German taxpayer money is funding – close to US2 billion as seen above. But we see zero evidence of any commitment to technology transfer – rather, the protection of patents, which, as we know, help to keep prices high and stop other from manufacturing the vaccine more cheaply and more accessibly.

Curevac’s vaccine is an m-RNA vaccine, and at $24 per dose, it is one of the more expensive vaccine emerging. However, of the different vaccine technologies, it is the m-RNA technology that is most amenable to technology transfer since the method does not require biological techniques like tissue cultures and high level biosecurity laboratories, as noted at a recent Knowledge Exchange International Roundtable on COVID19 Vaccine Manufacturing Capacity. But there is no sign that Curevac intends to translates its public funding into public benefit other than through sales at a profit.

So, tell Ambassador Schäfer that, if he truly agres that no-one is safe until everyone is safe, he should cease his country’s opposition to the waiver, which will open up the prospect of technology transfer and local production. Germany should make it a condition of any public funding that there be a tangible and measurable commitment to technology transfer so that it is actively investing in both the discovery and manufacture of vaccines but also technology transfer - so that more institutions, companies and partners can develop effective vaccines for everyone – not just those in rich countries who can afford to pay – unlike the rest of the world, dependent on charity and development aid.