£6.5bn pledged to combat Covid-19: Now it's time to ensure universal access

£6.5bn pledged to combat Covid-19: Now it's time to ensure universal access
£6.5bn pledged to combat Covid-19: Now it's time to ensure universal access

By Philippa Whitford, Steve McCabe and Wendy Chamberlain

As we sit in our houses under lockdown, worrying about the threat of Covid-19 to our loved ones, finally we share solidarity with those around the world whose lives and families are threatened on a daily basis by infectious diseases, some of which have been eradicated in the UK. Vaccines are critical to preventing infectious diseases, such as polio, especially when there are no treatments available.

Pandemics know no borders and, with modern air travel, we can only end the threat of Covid -19 in Europe and the UK if it is controlled across the world. This requires world-wide collaboration and coordination to ensure equitable access for new and existing diagnostics, vaccines and treatments.

Yesterday, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, co-hosted a landmark Coronavirus Global Response Summit alongside the UK and other international partners that successfully raised £6.5bn in initial funding to kick start global collaboration to combat Covid -19. This summit responded to a call to action from the WHO and other global health actors at the launch of the new Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator initiative. This initiative aims to accelerate the development, production and equitable supply of new Covid-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.   

We commend the UK government for the leadership role it is taking with our international partners. Coronaviruses are particularly difficult to develop vaccines against but, despite the uncertainty and challenges, some promising candidates have been identified and are now being trialled.

The UK's commitment is demonstrated by the funding pledge of £250 million pounds to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Initiative (CEPI), and the recent announcement of £330 million a year for the next five years to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Indeed, over the next five years, the UK's financial commitment to Gavi will help vaccinate 75 million children against diseases such as polio, measles or typhoid, saving around 2 million lives.

These are all welcome commitments but, as highlighted by a letter from over 130 cross-party parliamentarians to the prime minister and a growing number of public health and international development organisations, a key question remains unanswered. How do we ensure that a Covid-19 vaccine will be equitably accessible?

The government's pledges and commitments must be backed up with concrete actions to secure accountability. There are three key policies that can be implemented by the UK to ensure that public investments allow all to access these crucial medical developments.

Attach conditions to all funding for a Covid-19 vaccine so it is for a global public good

There is a danger that, without effective safeguards on taxpayers' funding, individual pharmaceutical companies would control the manufacture, distribution and pricing of any vaccine. Whether for cancer or cystic fibrosis, there have been too many examples of new treatments that have been priced out of the reach of public health systems; including the NHS. This has occurred even when taxpayer funding has played an instrumental role in the original discovery or development of a drug.

Any patent or monopoly applied to a Covid-19 vaccine could restrict the diversity of manufacturers able to produce the vaccine on the scale required to suppress the disease across the world. It is also important that future researchers can build on the knowledge or technology arising from publicly funded research.

At yesterday's summit, officials said pharmaceutical companies who will receive the funding will not be requested to forgo their intellectual property rights on the new vaccine and treatments, but they should commit to make them available worldwide at affordable prices. If these technologies are to truly be 'global public goods', any publicly funded health product should be patent-free.

The UK government should use its role as co-host of yesterday's summit to help ensure open access conditions are attached to all public funding pledged. These conditions would enable the mass production of any Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and tests to meet global demand and ensure that they are affordable to all countries and free for the public. There is little point in raising £7 billion if the resulting technologies can only be accessed by a select few.


Pooling our efforts

Last month parliamentarians from across both Houses came together to call for the government to support the proposal for an international pooling mechanism for Covid-19 research to be set up by the WHO. Sharing of data and knowledge would encourage collaboration and accelerate global research while large scale production would support affordable access to the vaccines and drugs required to control Covid-19 infections.

The idea of an international pool has already been supported by the WHO, the European Union, the Netherlands and UNITAID, but more support is required to ensure this initiative takes off. With the UK conducting pioneering research into Covid-19, support for such a pooling mechanism would allow the fruits of that research to be turned into a global public good and the government should seize the opportunity of yesterday's historic summit.

Any research project that receives public funding through the ongoing pledging efforts, should be conditional on mandatory open and public sharing of technologies, knowledge and data to ensure the right to use, develop and produce globally. Governments need to exercise their legal rights to impose mandatory sharing to ensure access of resulting technologies to all people in need across the world.

A global pandemic needs an accountable global coordination mechanism

We need to use global governance mechanisms to ensure equitable distribution and supply of health technologies according to public health needs. Global collaboration will give us the best chance of stopping the repeated re-emergence of Covid-19 across the world. 

The UK, and all the partners involved with yesterday's pledging summit, should urgently establish a transparent and inclusive governance structure to decide on priorities, monitor progress and evaluate and report on the results. Having a robust accountability mechanism will help ensure that commitments are translated into actions. Accountability and governance mechanisms should include representation from low and middle income countries, as well as  civil society and patient organisations.

The UK government has already demonstrated its global leadership in long term support for universal access to vaccination. In the race to discover a Covid-19 vaccine, bold international action is required to beat this pandemic in a way that leaves no-one behind.

Dr Philippa Whitford MP, chair of APPG on Vaccinations For All and SNP spokesperson for Health and Social Care

Steve McCabe MP, officer of the APPG on Access to Medicines and Medical Devices and Labour MP

Wendy Chamberlain MP, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for International Development

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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