US vaccine diplomat urges producers to back low-cost jab hubs abroad

Covid-19 vaccines updates

Joe Biden’s top vaccine diplomat has urged Covid-19 vaccine makers in the US to support the development of low-cost manufacturing hubs overseas to boost the production of cheaper jabs for developing countries.

Gayle Smith, head of global Covid-19 response at the US state department, told the Financial Times she wanted US vaccine makers — which include Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — to share technological expertise with international rivals who can make the vaccines at a lower price point.

“We need to increase the capacity of regions to produce more of the vaccines than they consume,” Smith told the FT. “Then they can start exporting to countries around them.”

Her comments follow criticism that the US is not doing enough to boost supplies in developing countries struggling to contain the spread of the Delta variant, despite having secured more doses than it needs to vaccinate the entire American adult population.

Smith said: “All companies want to hold on to their innovation. It is our hope that, particularly in the realm of public health, [they] will see the wisdom of making sure that there is greater accessibility and affordability.”

The Biden administration has already announced it will buy 500m vaccine doses to donate to poorer countries, while also backing proposals at the World Trade Organization to suspend temporarily intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines.

But US officials say more needs to be done to boost supplies in the near term. They believe that a network of low-cost factories overseas could boost global supplies by several billion doses a year.

The US government’s International Development Finance Corporation has offered $2bn to vaccine makers in developing countries to provide incentives for deals, and has already struck agreements with companies in India, South Africa and Senegal.

But so far these arrangements have involved drug companies in the developing world “filling and finishing” vaccine vials rather than making the jabs from scratch.

David Marchick, chief operating officer at the DFC, said: “We want regional distribution and diversification, and we want to do deals with countries of varying sizes. We would like to do more in Africa and South America in particular.”

Senegal, South Africa and Rwanda have been proposed as sites for the factories, while other contenders include South Korea and Brazil. Biden administration officials said they wanted to work with countries with small populations that might be able to ramp production up quickly enough to export beyond their own borders within months.

Experts say the vaccines produced by both Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer are sorely needed in the developing world because they use mRNA technology, which has proven more effective against newer variants like Delta and can be quickly adapted to tackle future strains.

The US government still owns one of the main patents underpinning the Moderna vaccine, but has not yet charged the company a royalty for using it. Barney Graham, one of the US government scientists who helped develop that vaccine, told the FT earlier this year the patent gave the government “leverage” over Moderna.

Tom Frieden, the former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is advising the Biden administration on its global vaccine hub strategy. He told the FT: “For a proper global vaccine strategy, we really need Moderna or Pfizer to play. Moderna is a better candidate, because the US taxpayer has bought and paid for that technology.”

The US has run one of the fastest vaccine distribution programmes in the world. But the Biden administration has come under fire for continuing to snap up doses while most developing countries struggle to inoculate their populations.

America has so far provided at least one vaccine shot to 69 per cent of its population, according to the latest data from the CDC. Namibia, which currently has the highest Covid death rate in the world, has given at least one dose to just 1 per cent of its population.

Moderna did not respond to a request for comment.

Additional reporting by Song Jung-a in Seoul and David Pilling in London

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