NEW YORK, JULY 12, 2021—With billions of people around the world in desperate need of COVID-19 vaccines, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is calling on the Biden Administration to push pharmaceutical corporations Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to help the world rapidly scale up production of mRNA vaccines. These pharmaceutical companies—which received significant US government funding to accelerate development of these vaccines—must immediately share vaccine technology and provide appropriate training to expand production of mRNA vaccines, including through the World Health Organization’s newly created mRNA technology transfer hub in South Africa, said MSF.
These urgent steps will enable qualified manufacturers in other parts of the world to boost global vaccine supply and save lives. Ramping up the manufacture of mRNA vaccines—currently only produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna—in developing countries would significantly increase access to these highly effective vaccines and protect more people against COVID-19 worldwide, the international medical humanitarian organization outlined in a recent position paper.
Globally, only 1 percent of people living in low-income countries have been vaccinated with at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Countries across Africa, for example, have entered a devastating third wave of the disease yet only 1.5 percent of the vaccines worldwide have been administered in Africa. This stark inequity in access to vaccines is a direct threat to people at high risk of contracting COVID-19, and to the broader effort to end the pandemic. mRNA vaccines continue to work well to prevent COVID-19 related hospitalizations and deaths, but it’s unclear how much more time the world has before new variants capable of bypassing current vaccines take hold.
“The only way to end the COVID-19 pandemic is to end it for everyone, everywhere, but that can’t happen if only two companies are producing mRNA vaccines,” said Dr. Carrie Teicher, director of programs at MSF-USA. “Wealthy countries have already bought up the majority of COVID-19 vaccines, but there’s no reason more vaccines can’t be made. 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, but Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech aren’t actively sharing this information—so the Biden Administration should demand they do so.”
US officials are in a strong position to make this demand because the government contributed to the creation of both mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, which take less time to produce than traditional vaccines, have proven highly effective in preventing infection, are easy to modify, and are likely the most effective against emerging variants. Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine’s clinical development, for example, was almost entirely funded by the US government. The company is expected to make $19 billion from sales of its COVID-19 vaccine this year. Pfizer forecasts that it will make $26 billion off of the vaccine in 2021 alone.
“Just like other illnesses our doctors and nurses treat every day, preventing COVID-19 through vaccination is critical in order to save lives—especially in low resource-settings where health care is often scarce,” Teicher said. “The Biden Administration has a clear opportunity to influence the pharma corporations that US taxpayers funded. The US must seize this chance to act in the interest of people everywhere who continue to live in constant fear of contracting COVID-19—instead of backing companies that are trying to protect their profits.”
The US government has helped to facilitate global vaccine manufacturing scale-up before, including by providing technical and financial support for influenza vaccine production to fourteen manufacturers in thirteen countries. While the US' recent announcement of support for a World Trade Organization waiver of intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines is welcome and crucial, much more is needed to realize increased vaccine production.
With COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, the Biden Administration could use the significant legal leverage afforded by the Defense Production Act and other laws to direct Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech to share their knowledge. As it’s likely that mRNA technology could be used in the future to target other pathogens common in low-resource settings, this manufacturing infrastructure could be useful long after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Additionally, by ordering that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna share this technology, the Biden Administration will be helping developing countries become more self-sufficient in their response to both current and future potential pandemics.
In addition to helping facilitate expanded mRNA vaccine production, which could take a few months to get up and running, the Biden Administration must immediately share the US’ surplus vaccine doses. The US has secured enough doses to protect its entire population of 330 million people and still have more than half a billion surplus vaccines left over.