More companies need to license out vaccine technology to improve access: WHO chief

PT Jyothi Datta Mumbai | Updated on March 23, 2021

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus   -  VIA REUTERS

Vaccines gap between rich and low-income countries is grotesque: Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Even as the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine comes under global scrutiny for possible links to rare blood clots, the company came in for a good word from the World Health Organization Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on licensing out its vaccine technology.

“So far, AstraZeneca is the only company that has committed to not profiting from its Covid-19 vaccine during the pandemic. And so far, it’s the only vaccine developer that has made a significant contribution to vaccine equity, by licensing its technology to several other companies, including SK Bio in the Republic of Korea and the Serum Institute of India, which are producing more than 90 per cent of the vaccines that have so far been distributed through COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access),” Dr Tedros said.

“We need more vaccine producers to follow this example and license their technology to other companies.”

Supply bottlenecks and shortages in Covid-19 vaccines have been exacerbated, as countries threaten exports bans on vaccines or raw materials. And the latest on the list is the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen who has threatened to stop exports from the region, if AstraZeneca does not meet its supply commitment.

This comes even as AstraZeneca’s vaccine stands suspended in few Scandinavian countries, as they study links between the vaccine and rare blood clots. Meanwhile, the company released its late stage Phase III results from studies done in the US. The vaccine has shown an efficacy of 79 per cent in preventing symptomatic Covid-19 and 100 per cent efficacy at preventing severe disease and hospitalisation, it said, even as a US health agency called for more “up-to-date efficacy data”.

‘Under-utilised tool’

On improving access, Dr Tedros said Costa Rica and WHO had launched the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool a year ago “to promote an open-science model, where licensing would occur in a non-exclusive, transparent manner to leverage as much manufacturing capacity as possible.” However, it “remains a highly promising but under-utilised tool.”

Despite pointing out in January that the “world was on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure” unless it ensured equitable distribution of vaccines, “it’s shocking how little has been done to avert it,” he said.

The gap between the number of vaccines administered in rich countries and the number of vaccines administered through COVAX is growing and “becoming more grotesque every day,” he said.

The Republic of Korea also got a good word from the WHO chief. Despite being a high-income country that could easily afford to buy vaccines through bilateral deals, they waited their turn for vaccines through COVAX, he said.

‘False sense of security’

But some other countries were “racing to vaccinate their entire populations while other countries have nothing. This may buy short-term security, but it’s a false sense of security,” he added.

“And as long as the virus continues to circulate anywhere, people will continue to die, trade and travel will continue to be disrupted, and the economic recovery will be further delayed... If countries won’t share vaccines for the right reasons, we appeal to them to do it out of self-interest.”

Published on March 23, 2021

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