The world’s developing countries could be vaccinated against Covid-19 at a cost of just $6.5bn (£4.6n) if pharmaceutical companies waive their intellectual property rights, under plans being outlined at the G7 summit this weekend.
Unless an agreement is reached with vaccine developers, the cost of vaccinating the citizens of all low- and middle-income countries could reach $80bn, according to calculations by the aid charity Oxfam.
Campaigners say G7 leaders must support a global network of manufacturing sites for the most effective vaccines, allowing developing world countries to distribute doses safely and effectively.
“Without a waiver, we would effectively be spending up to 10 times more that we need to in order to get enough doses – much of which will be money that will go directly into the pockets of the shareholders of these companies,” an Oxfam spokesperson said.
Boris Johnson said last week that he wants the major economies to make sure all adults are vaccinated by the end of 2022. The US has pledged to support the delivery of an extra 500m doses of the vaccine to the poorest countries from its existing vaccine orders, the UK has pledge 100m and the G7 is expected to make commitments that take the total to 1bn doses by the end of the year.
But campaigners point out that more than 10bn doses will be needed to inoculate all of those living in low- and middle-income developing countries.
US president Joe Biden has lent his support to calls by South Africa to waive vaccine patents and he was joined by French president Emmanuel Macron on Thursday. However, German chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected the move. Berlin has said the US plan would create “severe complications” for the production of vaccines.
The pharmaceutical industry has argued that without the incentive of profits from research and development spending, firms might not move as aggressively to make vaccines in the future.
Germany is host to two of the three pharmaceutical firms that produce vaccines with high efficacy rates and that are easy to manufacture – Pfizer/BioNTech and CureVac, which is producing a vaccine expected to be cleared by the regulator for use in the next few weeks. Both use mRNA technology, which introduces genetic material containing the instructions to make the coronavirus’s spike protein into the body to elicit an immune response.
Production facilities for mRNA can be smaller, cheaper, and faster to establish than those of traditional vaccines such as AstraZeneca, which involve using a killed or weakened form of the virus.
Former prime minister Gordon Brown has called on the G7 to find $60bn for vaccination programmes in 92 of the world’s poorest countries. These nations are supported by Covax, the global initiative aimed at equitable access to vaccines. Although no figures have been officially published, Covax is understood to be paying between $4 and $10 a dose.
However, Covax does not cover middle-income countries such as South Africa, Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia.
South African president Cyril Ramaphosa is concerned that his government will be forced to pay considerably more for the vaccine than Covax, and wait longer to receive it unless the G7 supports a vaccine waiver and the distribution of manufacturing sites to each country.
South Africa has already bought 1.5m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine for use among health workers at a cost $5.25 (£3.84) a dose, more than twice what the European Union is paying at $2.15. It has bought 10m doses overall for its 60 million population.
CureVac, a German firm that is part owned by the government, has pledged to have “an ethical margin”, but there are so far no details on price.
Oxfam says that if middle-income countries such as South Africa cannot secure a deal, the overall cost of vaccinating their populations would be $40bn. Added to the $60bn Covax estimate, the cost of ensuring the developing world is inoculated would rise to $80bn.
The chief executives of Moderna and BioNTech have increased their wealth to more than $4bn in the last year, despite the research and development of the vaccines being heavily subsidised by taxpayers.