SAN JOSÉ – The COVID-19 pandemic began less than six months ago, but we have already learned a great deal about the disease. Scientists around the world are looking at new and improved methods of detecting the novel coronavirus as early as possible. And in addition to these lines of inquiry, there are already eight potential vaccines under clinical evaluation, and more than 100 vaccine candidates in preclinical stages.
All of this represents extraordinary progress that we should celebrate. But there is reason to worry that not everyone will benefit from these breakthroughs. Developing tests, treatments, and vaccines for the coronavirus is only half the battle. The other half – what might be the hardest part – is to manufacture, distribute, and administer enough of these life-saving tools to benefit everyone, everywhere.
Early on in the pandemic, Costa Rica and the World Health Organization began discussing the creation of a one-stop shop for data, knowledge, and intellectual property relating to diagnostics, medicines, vaccines, and any other tools that may work against COVID-19. As of May 29, this visionary idea has become a reality with the launch of the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, which will ensure that progress leaves no one behind.
When effectively managed, open and global research produces results much faster than individual efforts can. The WHO’s own “Solidarity Trial” to find a COVID-19 treatment follows the same principle and is already collecting randomized data from 17 countries, with more than 100 others either getting involved or inquiring about joining. The WHO is also supporting 60 countries on related issues such as regulation, ethics, and the procurement of trial drugs, in recognition of the fact that the more countries participate, the sooner we will get results.
An open framework built around voluntarily shared information is not just good for science. It also will maximize the number of companies involved in producing in-demand technologies, thereby scaling up worldwide availability, lowering costs, and helping secure universal access. Equitable access is a key ingredient of the antidote to COVID-19. Vaccines or treatments – no matter how effective – will fail to end the pandemic unless they benefit everyone. Until everyone is protected, the world will remain at risk.
We applaud the United Kingdom for its commitment to make vaccines available to developing countries at the lowest possible cost, as part of its £84 million ($103 million) funding pledge for research at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London. We also agree with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has made a compelling case for why every COVID-19 treatment or vaccine produced in the Global North should be made accessible immediately in the Global South, prioritizing synchronization over sequencing.
When a COVID-19 vaccine does become available, it should be treated as a global public good. To that end, we are both calling on all governments to ensure that the outcomes of publicly funded COVID-19 research are affordable, available, and accessible to everyone around the world.
We also invite the pharmaceutical industry and relevant research institutions to share knowledge, data, and viable discoveries through the new access pool, so that companies large and small can join the global collective effort. Bringing more companies into the mix will expand the pool of knowledge and diversify how it is applied, increasing the odds of effective solutions being developed and delivered to more people in more places, and in less time.
Overcoming COVID-19 will require unprecedented breakthroughs in technological innovation and human collaboration. Fortunately, many countries are already coming together to realize a shared vision of health for all.
For example, both the United Nations General Assembly and the World Health Assembly have passed resolutions in support of universal, timely, and equitable access to health technologies. Private and philanthropic health leaders have been joined by 11 heads of state to support the launch of the WHO’s Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which also places special emphasis on access. And funders from around the world are now preparing their pledges for the upcoming Global Vaccine Summit on June 4.
With the launch of the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, we hope to complement years of work by the Medicines Patent Pool in negotiating for voluntary licenses on pharmaceuticals. This work has helped to deliver drugs for HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis C around the world.
But even more global solidarity is required to meet the current crisis. All pharmaceutical and technological innovators should ensure that their discoveries become beacons of hope for everyone, not just for the wealthiest individuals and countries. Combating COVID-19 calls for a global arsenal, and every tool that proves effective must be included.
By Carlos Alvarado Quesada & Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Carlos Alvarado Quesada is President of Costa Rica. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is Director-General of the World Health Organization.