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Vaccine equity advocates said the White House’s Wednesday announcement that it plans on ramping up domestic manufacturing to produce an additional one billion Covid-19 shots a year is a welcome step that still fails to meet the urgency of the moment.
The development, first reported by the New York Times, came amid sustained accusations that rich nations, including the U.S., are contributing to global Covid-19 “vaccine apartheid” by hoarding doses and insufficiently pressuring pharmaceutical companies—who are swirling in profits—to share their technology and know-how to bring the virus that’s killed over five million people worldwide to an end.
“To truly protect everyone’s interests, we need a global solution.”
According to Our World in Data, only 4.7% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. In the U.S., by contrast, nearly 69% of the population has received at least one dose.
The Biden administration said the plan will see billions invested in an effort to address both the current and potential future pandemics. The Washington Post reported that the proposal would rely on companies that make mRNA vaccines, which include those manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna.
White House Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said production would start in the second half of 2022. David Kessler, who leads the White House’s Covid-19 response, said, “We are looking to enter into a historic partnership with one or more experienced pharmaceutical partners” that the partnership would “be used for Covid and any future pandemic viruses with the goal of having enough vaccines available within six to nine months of the identification of the virus.”
As Robbie Silverman, Oxfam America’s senior advocacy manager, sees it, the plan leaves out a much-needed transfer of technology and problematically proposes increased production only within the U.S.
“In order to gain the upper hand on this and future pandemics,” Silverman said in a statement, “manufacturing should be spread around the world, especially Africa, not limited to the U.S. We know the coronavirus does not respect national borders; to truly protect everyone’s interests, we need a global solution.”
In addition to needing to add “robust tech transfer” to its plan, Silverman said the U.S. should support a “comprehensive waiver” proposal for sharing Covid-19-related vaccines and technologies at the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting later this month.
“Will it amount to another subsidy to Moderna and Pfizer, or be controlled by, or at least accountable to, the public?”
Advocacy group Public Citizen—which earlier this year released a plan for how rich nations could produce eight billion coronavirus vaccine doses with a $25 billion investment—welcomed the newly announced manufacturing boost as a life-saving result of grassroots activists who’ve been pressuring the administration to address global vaccine inequity.
“We are heartened, even as we sorely wish the U.S. government had taken far more ambitious and transformative steps six months ago, one year ago, 18 months ago,” Peter Maybarduk, director of the group’s Access to Medicines program, said in a statement. “Nonetheless, a major investment to boost mRNA production can help save many lives, and potentially even shorten the pandemic.”
However, “critical questions remain,” said Maybarduk. “Who will control this added capacity?” he asked. “Will it amount to another subsidy to Moderna and Pfizer, or be controlled by, or at least accountable to, the public, including through use of the Defense Production Act?”
Like Silverman, Maybarduk lamented that the plan only calls for boosting production within the U.S. and leaves out technology transfer.
“Sharing doses is charity, and desperately needed,” he said. “But sharing knowledge is justice.”