-to the Ministers of Health of European Union,
-to Commission-President, Ursula von der Leyen,
-to Commissioner for Health, Stella Kyriakides,
-to Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton,
-to Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel
-to Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen
Brussels, 10 June 2020
We are writing this letter to express our concerns over the impact of the European Commission’s recent plan for negotiating an advanced purchase agreement of COVID-19 vaccines, and request the Commission and health ministers to guarantee international solidarity and pursue global equitable access to COVID-19 medical tools in their strategic planning.
We have noted the European Commission’s intention of seeking a mandate to negotiate advance contracts and to reserve doses of promising candidates of potential COVID-19 vaccines with pharmaceutical companies.1 This mandate is an agenda point on the 12 June EPSCO meeting between the 27 ministers of health and the European Commission. After the divisiveness and nationalistic reflexes of some member states of the European Union (EU) over medical supplies early in the pandemic that led to export controls, it is a welcome step for the EU Member States to map their joint needs and engage in pooled procurement as leverage in negotiations with the pharmaceutical sector, not only for COVID-19 vaccines but for all medical supplies. A number of EU member states are organizing themselves as the Inclusive Vaccine Alliance with similar objectives.
However, we are alarmed that a main motivation for these initiatives, as reported, is in response to contracts between Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and pharmaceutical companies. In these commitments, the US government offers pharmaceutical companies large amounts of money to support the research and development and manufacturing of potentially effective COVID-19 vaccines apparently in return for guaranteed access to a set number of doses for US domestic use.
By seeking to replicate the model used by the US, the EU joins and spurs a global race for preferential access to COVID-19 vaccines where countries and regions outbid each other rather than collaborate. This is problematic, we should not repeat the mistakes of the HIV and H1N1 epidemic when financial means rather than health needs defined access to life-saving health products.
The purchasing of potential COVID-19 vaccines that would cater to EU member states’ needs first would sharply contrast with the European Commission's highly visible leadership in a global response to COVID-19, and the assertion of Commission President von der Leyen that COVID-19 vaccines will be “our universal, common goods”, as well as other European heads of states’ similar calls for solidarity and worldwide collaboration. Although it is positive that the proposal might lead to expanded supply capacity, including in Europe, that supply should not be preferentially allocated to Europe only or Europe first in derogation of its global solidarity commitment to equitable global access.
A true commitment to equitable global access for COVID-19 vaccines demands that the pooled procurement and the mapping of needs by the EU member states fit within a global effort and framework managed and coordinated by the WHO, enabling the allocation and distribution of vaccines according to internationally agreed medical and ethical criteria. Particularly, the needs of frontline health workers and people living in low- and middle-income countries, who have limited access to effective and equitable healthcare services and treatments, require priority access and protection. A recent poll by the Wellcome Trust has shown broad support for global vaccine allocation according to need, even if at the expense of preferential domestic access.2
The EU benefits from positive historical experience in fostering collaborative efforts. The creation of the European Coal and Steel Community was an innovative political answer to World War II, pooling coal and steel production to create shared prosperity, and break with disastrous competition and crisis. This historical foundation provides the EU with a unique ability to craft and lead a global response in a similar manner to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Countries and regions currently share a mutual risk that the discovery of an effective vaccine will not take place on their own soil, or will fall outside the advanced purchasing commitments they plan to sign. Rather than pinning a policy on the hope that an effective vaccine is discovered, developed and manufactured in Europe, the EU should facilitate open access to and the right to use all technologies, know-how, materials, regulatory data and intellectual property related to all COVID-19 vaccine candidates at the global level, and seek to negotiate and facilitate transparent technology transfer agreements to producers in other regions, including the US, Asia, Latin America, and Africa, to greatly expand manufacturing capacity, thus accelerating the global availability of needed supplies.
Instead of increasing dependency on selected pharmaceutical companies with limited internal capacity to deliver better, faster or affordable access, the Commission should aim to maximize the global capacity of vaccine development, manufacture and supply of multiple effective vaccines to enable as many people as possible to be catered to as soon as possible. An inventory of global manufacturing capacities, including all independent vaccine manufacturers from developing countries, and barriers for upscaling global manufacturing and production of effective vaccines, should be established. The use of public funding should be geared towards addressing those barriers and increasing and maximizing capacities.
In light of the above, we call on the Commission and health ministers to review the proposed plan concerning advanced purchase agreements on COVID-19 vaccines, to make sure the strategic planning of the Commission and the member states reinforce international collaboration and a global framework of equitable allocation and access to COVID-19 medical tools.