Government must do more to ensure global access to a coronavirus vaccine

No one is safe until everyone is safe.

No one is safe until everyone is safe. We can only end this pandemic if we look beyond our borders and help ensure that people around the world are able to access Covid-19 treatments. 

That is an approach which has been endorsed by the UK Government. They have recognised that Covid-19 medical products need to be treated as “global public goods”.

And they have made commitments to deliver on that – for instance, contributing to the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility, an initiative that aims to procure and help equitably distribute vaccines for Covid-19. 

However, we fear that the Government needs to do more. To end the coronavirus pandemic, the world urgently needs effective medical tools, including diagnostics, medicines and vaccines, to be available and accessible in all countries. 

In the last 9 months we have already witnessed shortages of Covid-19 respirators, ventilator valves, therapeutics and reagents for test kits.

Even in Europe and here in the UK, a key Covid-19 medicine has been rationed due to inadequate supply. The pharmaceutical company Gilead is selling the medicine at £1,802 (US$2,340) for a five-day treatment course in most countries, which is prohibitively high for many health systems, even though it can be manufactured for as little as £6.93 (US$9) per treatment course.

Our Governments, and others around the world, are investing huge sums of money into a small number of Covid vaccines. Initiatives like the COVAX Facility can only be truly effective at managing global access to future vaccines if there are enough doses to go around and this is beyond the capacities of a handful of companies. The UK needs to help scale up manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccines, as well as diagnostics and therapies. 

That’s why we held a debate yesterday in the House of Commons on equitable access to Covid-19 treatments and therapies. MPs from across the House spoke about the urgent need to ensure global co-operation to ensure that Covid-19, a pandemic which does not respect borders, is defeated. 

We called on the Government to improve transparency of vaccine research in the UK. At the initial Research & Development (R&D) funding stage governments can attach conditions to public financing that stipulate that a company must be transparent in all their financial reporting and that all publicly funded products need to be free from monopolies.

The Government should also champion the use of the legal safeguards that all World Trade Organisation members can implement to override patent monopolies if public health is at threat – Germany, Australia, Canada and Israel have already taken steps to do this. 

Finally the UK Government should support the proposed waiver of all intellectual property monopolies relating to COVID-19 tools, medicines and vaccines that the governments of India and South Africa have put forward at a recent World Trade Organisation meeting.

Not only will this help speed up R&D, manufacturing and hence the global response but it will also make products more affordable by enabling generic competition to help drive down prices.   

We are only at the beginning of tackling this pandemic. The shortages and restrictions we’ve seen in medical products so far are a sign of things to come, with pressure mounting on countries to protect the health of their populations whilst balancing this with economic recovery.

Artificially restricting supply through intellectual property monopolies during a global pandemic would be catastrophic. First and foremost in terms of the number of lives lost but also in terms of a spiralling economic crises on a national and global scale and the personal impacts this would have on each and every one of us in the UK and beyond. 

Sarah Champion is a Labour MP and chair of the international development committee. Wendy Chamberlain is a Liberal Democrat MP and the party’s chief whip.

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