The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) hosted a High-Level Dialogue which aimed to identify obstacles and recommend solutions to increase COVID-19 vaccine production and close the gap in vaccination rates between rich and poor countries.
The 21 July event themed, “Expanding COVID-19 Vaccine Manufacture to Promote Equitable Access,” brought together representatives from vaccine manufacturers, governments, public health advocacy groups, and development finance institutions. The Directors-General of the WHO, WTO and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) offered opening remarks. The rest of the conversation took place under Chatham House Rules, where the focus is on the ideas and recommendations presented, and speakers are not identified.
In her address, WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said that while the vaccine rollout has accelerated, “vaccine inequity is, by some measures, getting worse.” She identified unequal access to vaccines as a “major reason for the global economy’s K-shaped recovery,” where advanced economies “are surging ahead, while the rest lag behind amid rising poverty, hunger and unemployment.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that while over 3.5 billion vaccines have been distributed globally, more than 75% of those went to just ten countries. He called for increasing vaccine supply to lower-income countries by “removing the barriers to scaling up manufacturing, including through technology transfer, freeing up supply chains, and [intellectual property] waivers.”
WIPO Director General Daren Tang welcomed the presence of a range of stakeholders at the event, stressing the need to “work together in partnership with everyone to identify and solve the challenges that lie ahead.”
In the discussions that followed, participants outlined current and projected production volumes, and described plans for new investments in production capacity. They highlighted supply chain bottlenecks ranging from export restrictions and raw material shortages to onerous regulatory processes, and shared ideas on how these challenges might be addressed.
While speakers generally agreed on the need to keep supply chains open and predictable, perspectives varied on the proposed waiver of some of the WTO’s intellectual property rules to ensure greater availability of vaccines and other products needed to fight the pandemic. Issues around the transfer of know-how and technology, and factors influencing participants’ decisions on licensing intellectual property were also raised.