The U.S. is drawing criticism at home and abroad for providing booster shots and potentially expanding COVID-19 vaccines for children while some countries have yet to be able to immunize frontline health-care workers.
“We’re definitely not doing enough,” Gary Locke, former U.S. Commerce Secretary during the Obama administration, told Yahoo Finance Live.
“Yes, all of our manufacturers are going 24/7… but we really need to expand the existing production facilities and really focus on the human infrastructure, the delivery mechanisms of getting the shots in arms of people,” Locke said.
“We should be treating this as any other natural disaster; it’s a human disaster. And we should be offering our personnel, whether it’s relief workers or military personnel, and not just Americans, but from all around the world including U.N. forces,” Locke said.
Advocacy groups like Public Citizen and Doctors Without Borders have joined the World Health Organization’s call for solidarity in the need for equitable distribution of vaccines globally in order to end the pandemic.
To do so would require sharing intellectual property to ramp up production. With companies reluctant to do so, others are hoping to recreate the formulas for existing vaccines. Some companies are viable candidates to produce mRNA vaccines, including Biological E, working with Baylor College of Medicine, and the Serum Institute of India, which was supposed to bear the greatest burden of global vaccine production before the Delta wave hit and the company pivoted to domestic distribution.
These efforts don’t replace the push for using the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS agreement, to protect members’ copyrights, or waiving it. The U.S. supported the idea to waive intellectual property rights in the case of COVID-19 vaccines, while European countries are among those stalling the negotiation process.
Vaccine manufacturers have maintained it is not rational to pursue an intellectual property waiver, with reasons that range from supply chain constrains to lack of skilled labor and other resources.
Pfizer (PFE) CEO Albert Bourla announced a partnership with South Africa’s Biovac Institute, which will be operational by early 2022. He previously told Yahoo Finance that this process of including partners, and keeping a tight control on vaccine operations, is how the company has avoided some of the delays and issues that its competitors have seen.
Moderna (MRNA) CEO Stéphane Bancel announced waiving patent enforcement in October, but previously told Yahoo Finance that the company did not have the resources needed to help with transferring technology. Moderna announced it would create a manufacturing hub in Africa, but did not disclose where.
Both the mRNA companies (particularly Moderna for the steep investment of public dollars that helped produce its vaccine) have seen advocacy groups protest at their office doorsteps, at the CEO’s homes, and even abroad, calling for greater attention to poorer countries.
The pushback from the companies gives critics the sense that U.S. support of the waiver is largely symbolic.
Locke said the concern over intellectual property is a fair one and that it would take too long for some places to build out the skills and capacity needed.
“Allowing some company to get the secret sauce … will not enable them to ramp up a production facility overnight. It’s not like you’re building a factory to make shoes or shirts or toys,” Locke said, citing the issues that Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) partner Emergent BioSolutions faced after 60 million doses of the J&J shot had to be discarded for contamination.
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