As part of an OECD Forum series, our virtual event International Co-operation and Vaccines took place on Tuesday 24 November.
The profound inter-connectivity of modern societies presents both challenges and opportunities in the fight against COVID-19. Decades of rising cross-border trade, data and financial flows, and mass travel have paved the way to unprecedented — albeit uneven — growth, knitting different regions of the world ever closer together, but this interconnection has also fostered systemic fragility — as the rapid spread of COVID-19 amply evidenced. It is therefore not hard to see why some may want to shield themselves by turning inwards, or “going it alone”.
However, “vaccine nationalism” would be self-defeating for a number of reasons. Developing a vaccine is a long, expensive and challenging process, with a very high risk for failure. Novel approaches, technological advances and unprecedented sharing of research data on a global scale have contributed to the development of vaccines against COVID-19 at record-breaking speed. This has significant implications beyond the current crisis, as innovative vaccine technologies stand to help tackle a wide range of other diseases, and perhaps even cancer and antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Nevertheless, it is likely that not all COVID-19 vaccine candidates will be equally effective for different population groups. This means that it will be important to compare their safety and effectiveness for various populations, and make sure that people have access to the vaccine best suited for their particular age, ethnicity, or living conditions. The urgency of the current situation thus requires building manufacturing and distribution capacity for several vaccine platform technologies or specific candidates. International cooperation is paramount to these critical tasks. Without it, export restrictions, regulatory hurdles and other bottlenecks will hamper production, distribution and uptake, ultimately inflicting greater human, economic and social hardship.
The successful development of one or several COVID-19 vaccines represents a tremendous milestone, but not the finishing line. Progress has also been made in the search for treatments that can reduce the most severe forms of COVID-19, but they remain very costly, which greatly reduces their availability in many parts of the world. COVID-19 vaccines and high-quality treatments can only pave the way to a strong recovery if they are made available to those who need them most. As stressed by the OECD Secretary-General, “as long as the virus is widespread somewhere, the threat will remain everywhere, and economic costs will persist as some borders remain closed.” In order to end the current crisis, it will therefore be necessary to also ensure that COVID-19 vaccine doses and treatments are made affordable, decide on who should get access first, and plan massive vaccination and communication campaigns. International cooperation is also essential to rise to these challenges and prevent competition in access that would be damaging for all.
Also on the Forum Network: From Vaccines to a Global Cure: Why international co-operation is so important for stopping COVID-19 by Mark Pearson, Deputy Director of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, OECD
Importantly, international cooperation must involve not only states, but also the full range of stakeholders. As research centres and pharmaceutical companies face not only steep development costs but also pressure to keep prices low, governments need to provide a combination of push and pull mechanisms to incentivise end-to-end development and large-scale manufacturing and deployment. International cooperation can make the amounts committed large enough for such mechanisms to be effective. If they receive the necessary financial support, leading foundations and new international actors, such as the Wellcome Trust, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Gavi — The Vaccine Alliance can also play a vital role in providing the necessary incentives and guaranteeing broad access to the vaccines and treatments, thanks to their capacity to pull and coordinate resources in innovative ways. And indeed, the COVAX platform — which sees governments, global health organisations, manufacturers, scientists, private sector, civil society and philanthropy working together to ensure that people in all corners of the world will get access to a COVID-19 vaccine once it is available, regardless of their wealth — stands as a very promising development. Nevertheless, it has received only a quarter of the $16 billion it needs by the end of next year — even though this sum pales in comparison to the tremendous economic damage inflicted by the pandemic.
Also on the Forum Network: The only way to beat the COVID-19 crisis is if we come together and commit to science by Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust
Access to a safe and effective vaccine, as well as to various treatments, may be coming into sight, but still requires much more work, funding, and collaboration across the board. If international cooperation does not to pass this litmus test, the world will not only struggle to escape the worst health and economic disaster in decades, it may also set itself up for failure in the face of the other challenges that await. With both known critical issues — such as climate change and anti-microbial resistance — and less anticipated tail risks — akin to the COVID-19 pandemic — looming over our collective horizon, our fragile world cannot afford falling short.
|Tackling COVID-19||Health||International Co-operation||Vaccines|
Whether you agree, disagree or have another point of view, join the Forum Network for free using your email or social media accounts and tell us what's happening where you are. Your comments are what make the network the unique space it is, connecting citizens, experts and policy makers in open and respectful debate.