'Vaccine multilateralism' is key in the pandemic battle

Germany is committed to ensuring fair and transparent global access to Covid-19 vaccines

People at a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Hong Kah North Community Club in March. The swift global deployment of safe and effective vaccines remains the cornerstone in dealing with this public health crisis, says the writer.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

I received my second jab this week, having qualified as a member of the "60 years or older" cohort for early vaccination against Covid-19.

The second vaccination went as smoothly as the first. As I looked around at the orderly lines of people waiting to be inoculated, several thoughts crossed my mind.

One has to do with how the vaccine would not have come to being had it not been for a series

of bold decisions taken on faith - in the start-up BioNTech, given a boost from German public funds, in the researchers' belief that their hypothesis and hard work in their new home country would bear fruit, and in the chance that a revolutionary new technology would actually work.

Over a year on, the swift global deployment of safe and effective vaccines remains the cornerstone in dealing with this public health crisis. Many countries in Asia are doing well, and Singapore is often cited as an outstanding example.

The World Economic Forum's decision to hold its annual meeting this year in the Lion City has increased interest in the situation on the ground, and I have received many questions from Germany on how Singapore was able to keep its infection numbers so low. Likewise, I have been asked many times here why Germany has faltered in stopping the rise of Covid-19 cases after a widely lauded first response.

Part of the answer has to be location. There is a difference between being an island and being a country sharing land borders with nine countries through which people and goods flow freely and constantly.

True, Germany and Europe could have done much better in this crisis, but they have not done that badly either. For example, BioNTech-Pfizer, the European-American company that produces the vaccine used in Singapore, will manufacture more than two billion doses of the vaccine this year alone. Manufacturing sites and research are constantly being expanded in Europe to provide more vaccines to the whole world.

Since last December, the European Union has exported 77 million doses of vaccines, including 1.5 million to Singapore.

While it remains crucial that we fight the Covid-19 pandemic in our home countries, a global pandemic can be countered only with a global approach. Given how easily the virus is spread and the threat of new mutations, no one is safe until everyone is safe.

Under the leadership of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) was founded in April last year as a multilateral response to the pandemic. The goal is to develop, produce and equitably distribute Covid-19 vaccines, diagnostics and treatments. Germany, being one of its founding members, is its biggest donor, having contributed €2.1 billion (S$3.4 billion).

Covax (Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access) is the vaccine pillar of the ACT-A. The initiative works to ensure that vaccines are accessible to and affordable for all countries as a global public good. By May, vaccines will have been shipped to more than 140 countries, with nearly 90 developing countries receiving these for free. Within six weeks, Covax has distributed 37 million doses to over 80 countries. Covax has secured more than three billion vaccine doses for this year, sufficient to vaccinate every fifth person on earth. Every fifth euro spent on this historic vaccination campaign is provided by Germany, every third by the EU.

Together with many other international partners, Singapore and Germany have both committed themselves early to the Covax mechanism. All members of Asean are Covax members and will receive vaccine doses via this mechanism by May. For six Asean members - Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam - the vaccines will be financed through official development assistance.

Vaccines are not the only important instrument in the toolkit against contagions; there is arguably another even more important one - data. Without vital information such as the genetic sequences of pathogens, it would be impossible to fight not just Covid-19 but a whole range of other deadly outbreaks. This is where Gisaid comes into play.

The Gisaid initiative promotes the rapid sharing of data on all influenza viruses and the coronavirus causing Covid-19. This has not only helped the WHO and governments to respond faster, but also sped up the development of much-needed vaccines and diagnostic kits. The sharing of data is also critical in the tracking of viral mutations.

In 2010, Germany became the official hosting nation of Gisaid, which has the world's biggest database of viral genomes. It is supported by private donors, governments and non-profit organisations. Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research and its Bioinformatics Institute entered into a long-term cooperation agreement with Gisaid in 2014 and have since played a major role in setting up and maintaining the database to share and analyse genomes.

The active roles played by Singapore and Germany in Covax and Gisaid testify to their shared belief in the power of multilateralism. It is the belief that the major challenges of our time cannot be addressed by countries individually due to their nature and global scale. Instead, they must be tackled jointly in a rules-based multilateral cooperation framework.

For the pandemic to be dealt with successfully, global solidarity and "vaccine multilateralism" are essential.

All the many disparate efforts that go into this life-saving endeavour - one that Singapore and Germany both played a part in - give me confidence that the jabs I received will not make me part of a privileged group but are, rather, a step towards making vaccines available to all. Together, we can make 2021 a turning point in the fight against the pandemic and a turning point for multilateralism.

Dr Norbert Riedel is Germany's Ambassador to Singapore.