Demanding equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments

© Diego Baravelli

Alert is a quarterly magazine published by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF-USA) that features stories and photography from our medical projects around the world. Below is an excerpt from MSF-USA Board President Africa Stewart's introduction to the Spring 2022 issue (Vol 23. No. 1), How MSF works: Responding to emergencies. If you would like to download a print version of this publication, click here.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams continue to respond to the direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19. We’re also pushing for people everywhere to have access to lifesaving medical tools to bring this pandemic under control.

Vaccines play a key role in keeping people safe and slowing the spread of the virus so spikes in cases don’t overwhelm health facilities. But as we enter the
third year of the pandemic, only 15 percent of people in low-income countries have received even a single dose, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

To help bridge this gap, MSF is calling on the Biden administration to demand that US-based pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer—plus Pfizer’s German partner, BioNTech—share vaccine technology and know-how with other manufacturers. More than 100 such companies stand ready to produce additional highly effective mRNA vaccines for the people who need them most, if only they had the recipe to do so. The US is in a strong position to make this demand, since both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the world’s only two producers of mRNA vaccines for COVID-19, received billions of US taxpayer dollars to develop them.

“There’s no reason more vaccines can’t be made,” said Dr. Carrie Teicher, director of programs at MSF-USA. “Despite what these pharma companies want us to believe, we don’t have to rely on them for our vaccine supply. There are other companies out there that stand ready to help if the mRNA recipe is shared.”

PAKISTAN - Karachi C19 Vaccination 07
Pakistan 2021 © Zahra Shoukat/MSF

But ensuring that more people around the world have access to vaccines isn’t enough—people who fall ill also need access to COVID-19 treatments. The first two oral antiviral treatments for COVID-19—molnupiravir, made by Merck, and Paxlovid, made by Pfizer—were given emergency use authorization by the US Food and Drug Administration in December 2021. Oral COVID-19 drugs are especially important for people in low-resource settings, as they are easier to administer than a lot of other COVID-19 treatments, including those that must be administered intravenously. But they aren’t available in many of the places where MSF works, in part because most of the world’s supply has already been bought up by wealthy countries.

Abdullah - Patient
2021 © Majd Aljunaid/MSF

To ensure there are enough medicines for everyone who needs them, pharmaceutical corporations must stop standing in the way of generic, affordable versions being made.

“It’s imperative that our medical teams in even the most remote places have effective and easy-to-administer medicines to offer people who come into our clinics seeking care,” said Mihir Mankad, senior global health advocacy and policy advisor for MSF-USA.

The Biden administration must also remain committed to the TRIPS waiver proposal at the World Trade Organization to waive patent restrictions on all COVID-19 products during the pandemic and urge other countries to do the same. This would pave the way for additional manufacturers to help increase the production and supply of these lifesaving medical products to meet the global need.

 Iraq: Treating COVID-19 in Baghdad
2022 © Hassan Kamal Al-Deen/MSF

“Every day, we are witnessing a desperate need for COVID-19 medical tools in the places we work,” said Reveka Papadopoulou, president of MSF’s operational center in Geneva. “Given the severely limited access to COVID-19 drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines needed to save lives, the TRIPS waiver [that covers all COVID-19 tools] could have such a positive impact on how low- and middle-income countries are able to tackle this pandemic.”

While the US is currently reporting a lower number of COVID-19 cases than in previous months, the pandemic is not over. We must ensure that people around the world have the necessary tools to protect themselves against future waves and potential new variants of the virus.

Alert Spring 2022: How MSF works

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