More than 140 world leaders and experts have called for future Covid-19 vaccines to be made available to everyone free of charge, amid growing tensions between drug companies and governments and a boycott of vaccine summits by the US.
Vaccines and treatments for the virus should not be patented, say the signatories to an open letter published in the run-up to next week’s meeting of the World Health Assembly, the policy-setting body of the UN’s World Health Organization. Instead, scientific breakthroughs must be shared across borders, they urge.
The signatories include South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa; Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan; and the former UK prime minister Gordon Brown.
“Governments and international partners must unite around a global guarantee which ensures that, when a safe and effective vaccine is developed, it is produced rapidly at scale and made available for all people, in all countries, free of charge,” the letter says, adding that poorer countries should not be left at the back of the vaccine queue.
The plea came as a French pharmaceutical company stirred outrage by saying any vaccine it discovered would be reserved for Americans in the first instance.
Paul Hudson, the British chief executive officer of Sanofi, said any vaccine would go to the US first since it had done the most to fund the company’s research. “The US government has the right to the largest pre-order because it’s invested in taking the risk,” Hudson told Bloomberg.
The European commission and health experts responded furiously, pointing out that Paris-based Sanofi has received tens of millions of euros in the form of research credits from the French state in recent years.
The French government described Hudson’s remarks as unacceptable, while the German press pasted the firm as a soulless and disloyal multinational willing to blackmail governments to extract lucrative subsidies.
Last week Britain, China, Canada, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Japan and numerous African countries took part in a global Covid-19 summit. The virtual meeting raised more than $8bn for a potential vaccine. The Trump administration refused to send a representative, however, and appears determined to pursue its own unilateral vaccine path.
In a report published on Thursday, Brown pointed out that a second or third wave of Covid-19 infection could come from poor countries with undeveloped health systems. The solution to the problem was global, he said, adding that the pandemic would end only when the virus was “eradicated in every continent”.
As many as 100 forms of vaccine are being tested. The WHO sees seven or so as frontrunners. On Wednesday its emergencies chief, Michael Ryan, said the coronavirus “may never go away” and could become a regular endemic disease like the flu.
The WHO’s director for Europe Hans Kluge, said vigilance was needed to keep the virus at bay, as well as cooperation between people and politicians. He noted that new virus clusters had emerged in places where Covid-19 had apparently vanished, such as Wuhan in China, and South Korea.