Large parts of the world population are in some form of a lockdown today — and are starting to ask the question of how to transition out of this situation again. Europe, after several weeks indoor, is slowly looking into “de-confinement” scenarios; Asia is being watched closely to see whether the end of the lockdown is actually viable; governments are exploring the use of apps and mass distribution of masks.
Lockdowns, physical distancing, and tracking are not sustainable solutions, however. The path forward is not separation, but a vaccine.
The U.K. government has spent more than £300 million ($373 million) on treatment and vaccine research for COVID-19 but has not said how it will ensure access for lower-income countries.
The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos and endorsed by the G-20 only three years ago, is coordinating clinical trials for six potential candidates for a vaccine for COVID-19.
The first COVID-19 vaccine candidate started human testing mid-March, less than 70 days since the virus sequence was released. Yet, to get to the finish line, CEPI urgently needs a total of $2 billion in funding. Some governments have already heeded the call for funding, such as Canada, Ireland, Germany, Belgium, and most recently the Netherlands. But others are dragging their feet — and thereby risk derailing the often mentioned 12-18 months’ timeline for a vaccine.
While the development of the vaccine itself is obviously crucial, it doesn’t end here. Once a vaccine has been found, it needs to be manufactured and distributed in the most effective way — in a way that works for everyone, not just for the EU, the United States, or other G-20 members. The virus doesn’t know borders, nor can the response to it.
If the vaccine can’t be produced as quickly as possible and distributed in a way that doesn’t leave out the poorest countries, the whole endeavor will be meaningless. So any pricing, stockpiling, and roll-out strategy will have to work for Togo as much it does for Germany — whether it works in Togo should actually be the gold standard. And in order to be able to move as quickly as possible once a vaccine has been approved, work needs to start now.
The good news here is that there is a precedent to build on: the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. By 2019, when the virus broke out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an Ebola vaccine was available for emergency use, which helped limit the spread of the disease there. This was possible due to different organizations, among them the aforementioned CEPI but also Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which has specialized in ensuring vaccination efforts in the poorest countries for 20 years.
Gavi has market-based mechanisms that accelerate the development and production of a vaccine; they also know how to build and manage global emergency stockpiles and have the systems in place to allow for quick distribution in even the most remote or fragile areas. Today, Gavi has already freed up funding for the immediate emergency response in the poorest countries in the world, in particular in Africa.
While this was the right thing to do, it can backfire if donors don’t make funding quickly available. Routine immunization programs for other deadly diseases like measles need to continue. Otherwise, the world may have to face a second pandemic in countries whose health systems are already overwhelmed in regular times.
In addition, Gavi needs to start preparing now so that they can play the role they played for the Ebola outbreak for COVID19. The multilateral institution has already started seeking resources for their next funding cycle, starting in 2021. The U.K. had been planning for a while to host a summit for the replenishment in London in early June. While the world looks different now, funding for Gavi is actually more important and acute than ever.
However, by now, barely any country has made a pledge for the vaccine alliance — not even the U.K. itself.
Just a few months ago, the world came together in Lyon to replenish the Global Fund and raise $14 billion for the fight against HIV, malaria, and TB. This included increases from the EU, France, Germany, and the U.K., contributions from private actors and new donors.
Now is the time to do exactly the same to fight the coronavirus pandemic and for a vaccine.
The EU Commission has taken the lead to organize an international pledging conference to raise funds for CEPI and others to fast-track the development of vaccines, tests, and treatments which will take place on May 4. The June replenishment for Gavi will go forward as well. Two opportunities that governments must seize to ensure lockdowns will be a faraway memory in 2021.
In French, we say “There’s no such thing as love; only proof of love.” The same holds for a vaccine: governments can’t be secretly or publicly hoping for it, without actually funding the development and deployment of it across the world.
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