Health at the UN General Assembly: Innovation and equity for pandemic preparedness
Ahead of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA78), IFPMA Director General, Thomas Cueni underscores the need for pandemic preparedness plans to support innovation and equity. Global leaders must ensure science and innovation can again deliver at record speed and scale, while supporting voluntary partnerships and enabling scientists to have unhindered access to pathogen data.
When I look around at the political and economic debates taking place across the globe, it is clear to me that the focus and ergency on pandemic preparedness is fading.
That is why the focus on global health in New York, at the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA78) taking place this week, is so important. Leaders at the UNGA are debating three political declarations on three critical health focused topics – pandemic prevention, preparedness and response (PPPR), Universal Health Coverage (UHC), and the fight against Tuberculosis (TB).
This is an opportunity to carefully reflect on what worked well in response to COVID-19, what did not work, and build a consensus about what needs to be done now, so our collective response to the next crisis is even stronger – with a twin focus on both innovation and equity.
One of the central lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic is that innovation and science delivered. The approval of the first vaccine for emergency use in just 326 days after the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 was first shared was an unprecedented achievement, outstripping the most optimistic expectations and making it the fastest vaccine development ever.
Effective vaccines and treatments were critical in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent research estimates that if effective vaccines are rolled out 100 days after the discovery of a new pathogen, the likelihood of a pandemic as deadly as COVID-19 taking place in the next decade drops from 27.5% to 8.1%.
The prevailing of science and the rapid scaling up of vaccine production during such a crisis were made possible by several factors, including rapid access to pathogen data for scientists and almost 450 voluntary collaborations that support the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. These partnerships, made possible by robust intellectual property protections, cut across the private sector, academia, international agencies, and governments, proving how important it is to ensure we preserve this voluntary business-to-business approach.
If science is to respond even faster to the next pandemic, we must preserve and build on what worked well in response to COVID-19. This means ensuring we have the right incentives to support the pipeline of vaccines and treatments that will be needed to respond to future pandemics; ensuring scientists have rapid and unhindered access to pathogens and their genetic information; and the ability for companies to partner on a voluntary basis to rapidly scale up production.
These lessons must be central to all our pandemic preparedness plans, including the UN Political Declaration discussed in New York, and the new “Pandemic Treaty” being discussed in Geneva.
While innovation and partnerships delivered, the global community did not do so on equitable access to that innovation. It is now critical that we address this and ensure pandemic plans do not fudge equity when rolling out new vaccines and treatments.
We need to be clear that intellectual property has never been a barrier to equitable access to COVID-19 medicines, vaccines and diagnostics. Quite the opposite. Without the intellectual property system that underpins the innovation ecosystem, the proliferation of voluntary partnerships needed to maximise production and supply of high-quality products would simply not have taken place.
Seizing the initiative, last year, the industry published plans that can make a real difference in addressing the issue of equity, through the Berlin Declaration. In it, we outline the commitment by pharmaceutical companies to reserve an allocation of real-time production of vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics for priority populations in lower-income countries. This proposal is designed to provide a concrete solution to avoid a small number of countries securing the majority of supply of vaccines and treatments in the early months of a pandemic.
These proposals can only work if matched by a commitment from countries to allow frictionless trade of medical supplies – a challenge that hampered our ability to roll our vaccines and treatments at the height of COVID-19. A new social contract is needed between nations if we are to really learn the right lessons from the COVID-19 response.
COVID-19 also made us think differently about the diversification of global manufacturing and supply chains. It is right that we focus on this, and I’m encouraged to see initiatives in Africa, Asia, and Latin America involving companies to build this capacity. However, these initiatives will take time, as they require enabling factors like robust regulatory systems, skilled workforce, and sustainable markets.
I remain optimistic. I continue to see an unwavering commitment to the partnership that was so central to our COVID-19 response. Organizations such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and other partnerships between industry, academia, and governments continue to thrive. The industry is an active partner to the ambitious 100 Days Mission, which aims to deliver safe and effective vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics within 100 days of a pandemic threat being identified.
If we are to meet this ambition, we must retain a focus on addressing the twin priorities of innovation and equity. This means preserving the ecosystem that delivered innovation when we needed it most and taking the right practical measures to deliver equity. This twin focus must be our joint endeavor.
This blog was originally published by PharmaBoardroom on 20 September 2023.