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Why the World Needs a People’s Vaccine

A row of people listening to a medical worker in a waiting room
A medical worker speaks to volunteers as they wait to receive a potential COVID-19 vaccine during clinical trials in Soweto, South Africa, on June 24, 2020. © Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters/Newscom

Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected tens of millions of people and killed more than a million people

After months of uncertainty, however, the end of 2020 finally brought some encouraging news: multiple vaccines had been successfully tested and were being rushed to market. Yet although the creation of an effective vaccine is essential to saving lives and restoring prosperity, true success in the fight against COVID-19 will not be won unless vaccinations are affordable and widely accessible to all.

Who is developing vaccines and drugs?

Around the world, pharma companies are testing potential vaccines, with Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca already finishing clinical trials that have shown they could have a safe and effective vaccine that could be available to some wealthy countries in early 2021. 

Yet no single corporation will ever be able to make enough vaccine doses quickly enough for everyone who needs one—and people could be waiting for years, or may never get one. 

What challenges will have to be overcome to ensure global access to a vaccine?

There are two primary impediments to securing widespread affordability and accessibility: one is something that we at Open Society call “vaccine nationalism.” The other is a for-profit model that may incentivize price-gouging and artificial scarcity.

Vaccine nationalism is a belief and practice that pits the world’s wealthiest countries against one another with the ultimate goal of ensuring that their respective citizens are the first to get access to a new vaccine. It is a zero-sum mindset that ignores the many ways that cooperation can result in a vaccine that is both more reliable and more readily available.

What does vaccine nationalism look like in practice?

Vaccine nationalism involves governments pledging public funds to private companies—to support the development, testing, manufacturing, and distribution of a vaccine—in exchange for guaranteed access to a predetermined quantity of the vaccine. Wealthy nations representing just 13 percent of the world’s population have already bought up more than half of the promised doses of leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates. 

How might the profit motive imperil universal access to a vaccine?

For vaccines to be effective, they need to be affordable and accessible to everyone, everywhere.     

Historically, we have seen time and time again that pharmaceutical corporations create and protect monopolies in order to maximize profits instead of improving public health. This is true with vital medicines for illnesses like HIV and cancer, where medicines were priced far out of reach for most people. These practices artificially inflate the price of vaccines, where only wealthy countries can afford them, pushing poorer countries to the back of the line. 

Governments that are funding the research, development and manufacture of vaccines must ensure taxpayer money is not being used to help pharma make large profits. Governments need to instead put conditions on their funding to demand that patents and other intellectual property barriers are removed.

What’s being done? 

Around the world, groups are working together to call for a “People’s Vaccine.” This declaration demands that a vaccine be patent-free, produced at scale, and made available free to people everywhere. Its members include humanitarian and health organizations, past and present world leaders, health experts, faith leaders and economists. The People’s Vaccine alliance is calling on governments and pharmaceutical corporations to:

  • prevent monopolies on vaccine and treatment production by making public funding for research and development conditional on pharmaceutical companies freely sharing all information, data, biological material, and intellectual property related to the virus
  • ensure affordable prices by demanding transparency based on the cost of research, development, and manufacturing
  • implement a fair allocation of the vaccine, which prioritizes health workers and other at-risk groups in all countries
  • ensure the vaccine is purchased at true cost prices and is provided free of charge
  • secure the full participation of governments in developing countries, as well as civil society actors, to ensure transparency and accountability of all decisions

Will a more open exchange of research help?

Yes. In October, India and South Africa proposed to waive some intellectual property rights on coronavirus technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic. This would allow countries to choose not to grant or enforce patents on COVID-19 drugs and vaccines, thereby facilitating a more open exchange of research and technology. The proposal, which is already supported by 99 countries, would allow COVID-19 technologies to be more affordable and accessible.

What is Open Society doing to help improve vaccine access?

Drawing on the philosophy and ideals reflected in the call for a People’s Vaccine, Open Society Foundations is:

  • Contributing $2 million for a Cross-Regional People’s Vaccine Advocacy Campaign that takes the shape of a coordinated Global South–led strategy centered on affordable and fair access to COVID-19 diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments, as well as protective personal equipment.
  • Amplifying Global South voices that are not traditionally part of the access to medicines debates.
  • Challenging the power imbalance between the Global North and the Global South by urgently advocating for immediate equitable access to vaccines and treatments, and engaging Global South governments to invest in research and development and manufacturing capacity in order to limit dependency on the Global North. This shift in research and development, as well as manufacturing power, from the Global North to the Global South can be seen as a mechanism to push for systemic change in the global health architecture.

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