Expert insight

The Biopharmaceutical Industry’s Three Priorities to Urgently Increase COVID-19 Vaccine Access

2 March 2022
  • Thomas Cueni Director General

As the focus of the global COVID-19 pandemic response shifts downstream from the development and production of vaccines to vaccination campaigns themselves, IFPMA Director-General Thomas Cueni lays out the biopharmaceutical industry’s three new overarching priorities: supporting country readiness, contributing to equitable distribution, and driving innovation.

From the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the biopharmaceutical industry has been committed to bringing its R&D, as well as its know-how in manufacturing of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics to improve health outcomes worldwide. A year since the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered, vaccine makers including biotechnology firms from both developing and developed countries have successfully scaled up vaccine manufacturing, more than doubling pre-COVID vaccine capacity within a year.

Since then, ensuring that as many people as possible get vaccinated has been driving the industry’s efforts and remains a critical goal of our global pandemic response. The global health community started 2022 by celebrating the first billion doses of vaccines delivered through COVAX. 95 percent of the vaccines COVAX has delivered were developed and manufactured by innovative biopharmaceutical companies.

However, despite our collective efforts, COVID-19 vaccines are still not equitably reaching priority populations worldwide. It is now widely recognized that today, the problem is no longer vaccines but vaccination. This calls for a shift in our commitments to ensure that no one is left behind.

Materializing the benefits of a strong innovation ecosystem for all

Since the industry’s commitment to Five Steps to urgently advance COVID-19 vaccine equity, significant progress has been made. Today, over 12 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines alone have been produced in record time and more than 60 percent of the world’s population has received at least one dose.In addition, thanks to over 350 voluntary licensing and technology transfers across four continents, supply constraints have significantly eased.

Over recent months, the industry has expanded partnerships, shared knowledge, and embraced technology transfers to make it possible to produce volumes of vaccines in record time. But we are aware that equitable access requires more than just the delivery of doses.

The main challenge of the pandemic has shifted from developing safe and effective vaccines for a totally unknown virus to manufacturing billions of doses, delivering them, and getting shots into people’s arms. The priority now is downstream, way beyond the factories where the vaccines are produced. Healthcare systems need to be stronger if we want to address the biggest bottlenecks in vaccine delivery and administration.

Determined to meet this urgent need, innovative biopharmaceutical companies have committed to continue working with all stakeholders on three overarching priorities: support country readiness, contribute to equitable distribution, and drive innovation.

1. Step up support for country readiness to roll out COVID-19 vaccine doses

To ensure all available COVID-19 vaccine doses are used and not wasted, country readiness is key. More can be done to help countries prepare for vaccine doses deployment by improving demand forecasting and visibility of deliveries thereby allowing countries to properly absorb vaccine supplies.

Today, COVID-19 vaccine production outpaces doses administered and companies have been asked to halt COVID-19 vaccines deliveries. We see increasing constraints related to storage, cold chain capacity, trained vaccinators, and challenges to planning and financing vaccination campaigns.

This is why the industry has committed to several efforts to support country readiness. These include, and are not limited to, improving vaccine demand forecasting to better align and match demand and supply; sharing information to ensure better deliveries visibility; and providing timely information with regulatory authorities to facilitate the reallocation of doses.

Companies continue to build confidence in COVID-19 vaccines and fight disinformation globally. For instance, Africa has a very young population and, unfortunately, a large proportion of the population does not see the virus as a big threat. Companies should therefore continue to share real-world vaccine effectiveness and safety data, and leverage their market research expertise, as well as their behaviour and attitude changes experts to support NGOs on the ground working on public vaccine education campaigns.

Each and every country faces unique challenges in rolling out COVID-19 vaccination. By working together, these can be overcome. For this reason, IFPMA and other key industry associations recently published their three priorities to urgently increase access to COVID-19 vaccines outlining what innovative biopharmaceutical companies commit to focus on and work with others to support countries as they mobilize to execute national vaccine rollouts and remove barriers to the efficient distribution and administration of vaccine doses so that they reach those who need them most.

2. Contribute to the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccine doses

Over the past six months, governments that had significant domestic supplies of COVID-19 vaccines have increasingly shared them with low- and lower-middle-income countries (LMICs). At the same time, vaccine manufacturers have continued to ramp up production, including through voluntary licensing and technology transfer.

Today, we continue to work to improve dose sharing in a responsible and timely way, expanding efforts to make uncommitted vaccine doses available to prioritized populations and to avoid waste due to short vaccines shelf lives. Companies are gathering data on multiple vaccine batches over time and submit these data to regulatory agencies for approval of the expiration extension. This will provide pharmacies, doctors’ offices, and vaccination centres with greater flexibility in managing and maintaining vaccine distribution and supply.

Doses need to be shared and delivered in a reliable manner. Only in this way can we avoid waste and make sure that everybody who needs a vaccine gets it.

3. Continue to drive innovation

COVID-19 vaccines were developed in record time. However, as the virus continues to evolve, research and development must too – not only to address logistical issues in storage, thermostability, delivery and administration but also to develop the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines.

Our companies are committed to making vaccines more stable and easier to use, as well as optimising production. They are also developing variant-specific vaccines, and exploring ways to develop pan-coronavirus vaccines, as well as vaccines that protect against COVID-19 and other viruses in one dose. Together, we thrive to enhance the manufacturing process, shortening delivery timelines and expanding the supply network.

Turning vaccines into vaccinations

Vaccinating the world against COVID-19 is a colossal global challenge, but our efforts so far – in just two years – show it’s not impossible. These three priorities create a framework that can help the world achieve our common goal: bringing the pandemic to an end, for everyone, everywhere.

We believe that, to achieve an improvement in vaccine equity, all stakeholders, including manufacturers, governments, international institutions, and other non-governmental organizations, must redouble efforts. We all must support countries as they mobilize to execute national vaccine rollouts.

We are ready and determined to work together to enable lower-resource countries to vaccinate and protect their populations from COVID-19, removing every barrier that stands in their way.

This article was originally published on Pharma Boardroom on 2 March 2022.