UK offers little detail on how aid-funded COVID-19 vaccine will be accessible to all

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A researcher works on a COVID-19 vaccine candidate. Photo by: UPMC / Handout via Reuters

LONDON — U.K. civil society has called on the government to ensure that any COVID-19 vaccines or treatments developed with aid funding are patent-free to prevent pharmaceutical companies from “profiteering” from sales and to ensure they are accessible to lower-income countries.

Despite being one of the biggest donors of official development assistance to the international research effort against the new coronavirus, the U.K. government has not provided a clear answer on the question of patents or on recommendations around the accessibility of successful vaccines or other products.

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This has raised fears in civil society that vital medical supplies might not be affordable to people in low-income countries, despite being funded with ODA.

“The current pharmaceutical system is not fit for purpose, and unless governments take action, there’s every chance that the drugs we develop will not be affordable to people across the world,” said Nick Dearden, director of the campaign group Global Justice Now.

A spokesperson for the Department for International Development told Devex it is working to ensure that a vaccine “is available ... in the poorest countries.”

The U.K. government has spent more than £300 million ($370 million) on research into coronavirus vaccines, treatments, and diagnostic kits, with £250 million going to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations alone. CEPI’s mandate is to help speed up the development of vaccines and enable access to them during outbreaks, but its accessibility policy has been subject to controversy.

“Unless governments take action, there’s every chance that the drugs we develop will not be affordable to people across the world.”

— Nick Dearden, director, Global Justice Now

An open letter to the U.K. government, signed by 23 groups including Oxfam, Save The Children, and Médecins Sans Frontières, expressed concern about the lack of a “robust access strategy.”

“There is a real danger that without safeguards, pharmaceutical companies may gain exclusive rights to a new vaccine, which in turn could lead to price gouging and unaffordable prices for millions of people,” it said.

The letter continued: “Pharmaceutical companies could also create barriers for researchers that wish to build on the new knowledge and technologies that arise from publicly funded research. These would have grave implications for stopping the spread of this pandemic globally. It is imperative that the UK government takes firm action to ensure public investment prioritises public health over corporate profiteering.”

The letter makes a number of recommendations, such as the inclusion of “public interest conditions” on all coronavirus research funding to ensure universal access and affordability.

It says the U.K. should support a Costa Rican proposal for the World Health Organization to “create a global pool for rights in Covid-19 related technologies.”

It also calls for the transparency and sharing of clinical trial results and product pricing and for the U.K. government to issue nonexclusive licenses if suppliers don’t make their products affordable and accessible.

In a statement sent to Devex, DFID did not say how it would respond to any of the recommendations.

Vickie Hawkins, executive director of MSF UK, said: “This [ODA] money cannot be handed to pharmaceutical companies with no strings attached. Conditions must be added to these funds to ensure that there are no patents or profiteering on any future COVID-19 vaccine.

“We know from our past experiences all over the world what it means not to have the right medical tools to save people's lives. Any successful vaccine resulting from public funding must not be limited to commercial interests and has to be made available to all during this pandemic.”

The DFID spokesperson said: “Developing a vaccine rapidly, and making sure it is globally available is our top priority and will help protect us all from future outbreaks of coronavirus. That’s why the U.K. is proud to have committed £250 million to date to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovations in its search for a coronavirus vaccine.

“We also are working with our international partners including Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, so that when a vaccine is found, it is available across the world, including in the poorest countries.”

Gavi typically helps lower-income countries access vaccines by reducing the price through bulk purchasing and partly financing immunization programs. However, the pandemic has thrown its next replenishment — scheduled to be held in the U.K. in June — into doubt.

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About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process.