ROME, ITALY — In response to international demands for further vaccination solidarity, Pfizer and BioNTech, American & German pharmaceutical firm, announced on Friday that they would distribute 2 billion doses of their COVID-19 vaccine to medium- and low-income countries over the next 18 months.
The firms made the announcement at a public health conference in Rome co-hosted by the European Union’s executive arm and Italy, where they produced the first vaccine to be approved for use in the United States and Europe.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla stated that a billion doses will be distributed this year and another billion in 2022.
It was uncertain if the doses would be delivered via the United Nations-backed COVAX scheme, which seeks to guarantee equal access to COVID-19 shots for low- and middle-income countries, or whether they would be purchased directly from the companies at a discounted price.
Bourla said his organization introduced a three-tiered pricing policy last year to ensure that low-income countries get shots for free and that middle-income countries pay only half the amount that wealthy countries pay.
The COVAX campaign experienced a significant setback earlier this week when its largest provider, the Serum Institute of India, declared that due to the COVID-19 crisis on the subcontinent, it would definitely not sell any more vaccines until the end of the year.
Poorer nations are unable to obtain supplies as vaccine programs begin in the Western world. This week, the United Nations Security Council voiced concern about the insufficient amount of doses that have made it to Africa.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, encouraged wealthy countries to donate vaccines before immunizing younger people, such as infants, last week. Allowing the virus to spread unchecked everywhere in the world, experts say, may result in the appearance of potentially harmful variants.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said at a public health summit in Rome on Friday that over 1.5 billion vaccine doses have been given in over 180 countries around the world. Low-income nations accounted for just 0.3 percent of the total, while wealthier countries accounted for 85 percent.
“The disparities in vaccination rates are staggering,” Draghi said at the forum, which was attended by leaders from the Group of 20 industrialized and emerging market countries, as well as heads of international organizations. “Not only are these inequalities unfair, but they are also a threat because the virus will mutate dangerously and disrupt even the most active vaccine program if it is allowed to spread openly around the world.”
On the eve of the meeting, the president of the World Trade Organization said it’s also critical to diversify vaccine manufacturing and provide more development in Africa and Latin America to counter inequalities and contain the pandemic. Many of the same points made by WTO Director-General Okonjo-Iweala were presented by the European Union, with a focus on increasing industrial activity in Africa.
“Today, Africa imports 99 percent of its vaccines, and this needs to change,” says Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. “As a result, team Europe is launching an initiative with African partners to help Africa develop vaccine development. The project will provide a series of regional hubs throughout the continent, using the entire toolkit of team Europe, including a one-billion-euro ($1.2-billion) investment.”
Despite the US government’s recent call to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents in order to raise stocks, summit participants were required to insist that intellectual property rights were an effective tool for increasing vaccine production.
However, David Sassoli, an Italian member of the European Parliament, believes that exchanging patents is necessary during the current health crisis.
“The international community as a whole must bear the blame. This is why we endorse the call for a new global framework to improve the common structure for disease surveillance and response,” he added.
Sassoli’s point of view is not universally shared; EU countries cannot agree to a temporary waiver of patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines. Patent waivers, according to EU officials, will have no short- or intermediate-term benefit and may also have a detrimental effect.
Italy is open to the proposal, according to Draghi, as long as the waiver is “targeted which time-limited, and does not threaten pharmaceutical firms’ incentives to innovate.”