Pharma is making billions but the pandemic still threatens

International organisations are concerned. Vaccination rates are as low as 2.5% in the least developed countries. A situation conducive to contagion and the development of variants. 

Question: Where did the fifth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic come from, and is it hitting every region of the world? On Wednesday, for example, just over half a million cases of infection were recorded by the World Health Organization (WHO). The answer: variants that keep mutating, vaccine-resistant people who still carry the virus and, above all, entire populations that still do not have access to the precious doses, knowing that no one is safe as long as everyone is not.

This is an alarming health situation, but it contrasts with the good health of vaccine manufacturers. The latter sell most of their production in rich countries where public funds or insurance companies pay for the first, second and now third doses of vaccines. On Tuesday, Moderna released its results for the third quarter of 2021: $5 billion in sales compared with $157 million for the same period in 2020. Pfizer, which announced its quarterly results on 2 November, reported sales of $14 billion (for all its vaccines) compared with $1.7 billion last year. AstraZeneca will publish its results this Friday.

Community immunity

Despite this, the WHO target of vaccinating at least 40% of each country’s population by the end of 2021 has already been missed. This will be the case for 74 countries, most of them among the least developed countries in Africa, where the vaccination rate against Covid-19 does not exceed 2.5%. In most rich countries, the rate is over 60%. No one is talking about herd immunity anymore.

This was the conclusion reached on Tuesday by the working group which, in addition to the WHO, includes the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, all of which are involved in the fight against Covid-19. As of 10 November, the pandemic, which emerged in late 2020 in Wuhan, China, has infected 250.7 million people, of whom 5.062 million have died.

The four international organisations say they take the lack of access to vaccines in poor countries seriously. Their leaders met with the heads of major vaccine manufacturers on Tuesday to discuss the crisis. As in the previous three meetings — the discussions are not public — the pharma representatives focused on bottlenecks in the value chain, shortages of raw materials and lack of infrastructure to carry out immunisation campaigns.

«There is not a supply problem, but an allocation problem».

On its website, the WHO gives another reason. «With a capacity to produce about 1.5 billion doses of vaccine per month, there is sufficient supply to meet our targets. «There is not a supply problem, but a vaccine allocation problem,» it says. In fact, from the beginning of the crisis, rich countries have reserved most of the production, especially of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

At this stage, it is mainly Chinese vaccines that have been deployed in poor countries. The WHO’s Covax system for raising funds, purchasing and distributing vaccines has been out of action for many months, as its main supplier, the Serum Institute of India, has been banned from exporting its production by the Indian government. Last spring, the US announced a $2 billion donation to the Covax system, while ensuring that the Covax system sources mostly US vaccines.

The battle is also being fought at the WTO. In October 2020, South Africa and India tabled a motion calling for a temporary waiver on vaccine patents to increase production. A year later, the negotiations are going in circles. A group of countries (the European Union, Switzerland, Canada, Australia and Japan) are fiercely opposed in the interests of their pharmaceutical industries. The major vaccine producers have promised to open production sites in Africa, Asia and South America.