Local production, transparency key to tackling Covid-19 vaccine inequity: Experts

A health worker preparing a dose of the Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine during a vaccination drive in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, on May 25, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - Experts are calling for an increase in local production of Covid-19 vaccines, especially in developing nations, and greater transparency between governments and pharmaceutical companies in their orders and distribution.

They have also urged the World Health Organisation (WHO) to reform its governance system to involve not just states, but also other key players.

Developing nations are falling behind rich nations in vaccinating their population, often due to a scarcity of doses. Richer states have taken up more than half of the world's available vaccines. Some have even hoarded the vaccines while poorer countries reel under the pandemic.

Speaking at a webinar by the Australian National University on Thursday (June 3), Professor Tikki Pangestu of the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore said one way to solve the vaccine shortage is for developing nations that are manufacturing their own vaccines to ramp up production.

India, Indonesia and Thailand, for example, are already manufacturing vaccines locally.

"I'm not saying every country should have the manufacturing capacity," he said. "But the capacity of those who have... should be enhanced by the government providing more resources and incentives. That could also be helpful to other countries in the region which don't have the facilities."

Indonesia's state-owned Bio Pharma, for example, has already produced 65.5 million doses of CoronaVac as at Thursday, in partnership with China's Sinovac Biotech. It is set to produce another 75 million by the year end.

The other speaker at the webinar entitled "Global Vaccine Distribution: Ensuring Equity for Developing Nations" was Dr Mari Pangestu, managing director of development policy and partnerships at the World Bank.

She attributed much of the problem of vaccine inequity to the lack of transparency between governments and pharmaceutical companies on their orders.

"We don't actually know how much has been booked, to know how many therefore needs to be produced," said Dr Mari, who was Indonesia's former trade minister.

Besides urging advanced nations to share their unused doses, she also called for procurement information to be shared because "that will determine where the shortage is that we need to invest in".

Asia, the world's most populous continent, has vaccinated only about 6 per cent of its 4.5 billion population, while in Africa, only about 1 per cent are immunised. By contrast, more than half of the population in the United States and Britain have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

The division between the rich and the poor has never been more apparent than in the pandemic, and it has fuelled nationalism and exacerbated the geopolitical tensions between the US and China.

Prof Tikki said that the global governance of public health must be improved. The WHO needs to be given more freedom to publish information rapidly without prior consultation with governments, and more authority to probe any disease outbreak that could potentially morph into a pandemic.

He also recommended that the WHO decision-makers be expanded to include pharmaceutical companies and philanthropists who have played a crucial role in financing vaccine research, and civil societies.

"Global health should be a lot more beyond countries," he said.

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