This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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To say that the past year has been an unprecedented one for the global scientific community would be an understatement. COVID-19 has put to the test decades of scientific research into innovative vaccine science and technology, as well as the ability of the global community to work together to make rapid progress against a novel pathogen. The pandemic has also exposed many areas in need of continued and increased investment, both in terms of innovation as well as strengthening systems and infrastructure to enable equitable access.
Pharmaceutical and biotech companies were able to develop and deliver effective vaccines for COVID-19 in under 12 months—breaking all historical records in vaccines R&D. This was nothing short of miraculous—and yet it wasn’t a miracle. It happened because we have invested billions of dollars over the course of several decades into scientific knowledge and technology platforms, allowing us to not only construct brand new vaccines within weeks of receiving the novel coronavirus genetic sequence, but also to begin producing the vaccines at global scale.
We will never fully stop COVID-19 until everyone, everywhere has access to an effective vaccine. In the words of the WHO, 'No one is safe until everyone is safe'
This extraordinary speed was also possible because of the extreme collaboration among multiple partners across academia, government and the private sector, such as the collaboration of BioNTech with Pfizer; Moderna with the U.S. National Institutes of Health; AstraZeneca with the University of Oxford, or Johnson & Johnson’s work with the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center as well as our landmark partnership with the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. We have seen that marrying innovative platforms with established R&D, manufacturing and distribution capabilities is key to bringing an innovation rapidly to the people who need it.
With several COVID-19 vaccines now having received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, conditional marketing authorisation from the European Commission Emergency Medicines Agency and several other regulatory authorities globally, including pre-qualification by WHO, our hope is that the tide of the pandemic will start to turn. Nevertheless, we will never fully stop COVID-19 until everyone, everywhere has access to an effective vaccine. In the words of the WHO, “No one is safe until everyone is safe”.
The need to bring COVID-19 vaccines to the world—equitably—has become even more pressing in recent weeks, as we see more infectious strains of the virus emerge in multiple countries and then spread rapidly across the globe. The evolution of the virus means that we have to stay vigilant and be ready to adjust our scientific approaches, which will require ongoing surveillance, continued innovation and investment. Our situation has become starkly clear: we’re in a race against this virus, and we’re in a race against time to vaccinate the world.
Read more: The Haves and Have-Nots: The geopolitical dilemma of COVID vaccine equity by Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, Chief Strategist, CONVINCE Africa
The good news is that, from the beginning of this pandemic, the world has recognised this urgency and is taking collaborative action. In April 2020 we saw the launch of a groundbreaking global collaboration, The Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator. Working to speed development, production and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines, the ACT Accelerator brings together governments, scientists, business, civil society, philanthropists and global health organisations. As another example, in September 2020 16 life sciences companies, along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, came together to sign an unprecedented communiqué pledging our commitment to ensure equitable access to the innovations being developed to fight the pandemic.
Individual organizations are also making significant efforts to ensure equitable access. For example, Johnson & Johnson has pledged to provide up to 500 million doses of our COVID-19 vaccine to lower income countries, and in December 2020 we reached an agreement in principle in support of the new COVAX Facility, to help deliver on this commitment.
COVAX, which is spearheaded by Gavi, WHO, Wellcome and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, aims to ensure that the limited supply of COVID vaccines in the acute pandemic period is deployed equitably across 190 participating countries, no matter their income level. This equitable approach to delivering lifesaving medical tools has never been attempted before in a pandemic, and that’s why we are working with COVAX—because it’s the right thing to do.
What we are seeing today is that the pandemic is evolving due to global dynamics and the emergence of resistant variants, raising the urgency for coordinated global action. Beating COVID-19 will require constant global surveillance, continued rapid innovation—including potential booster development and other new vaccine strategies—and close partnership between governments and vaccine makers. Only through innovative collaborations, fueling of new ideas, well-planned implementation of equitable approaches, as well as constant vigilance and sense of urgency, will the world beat COVID-19.
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