New Zealand has joined a global facility to ensure Kiwis are not left trailing in the race for a Covid-19 vaccine.
It comes as the United States buys up almost all the world’s supply of remdesivir, one of only two drugs shown to work against the new coronavirus.
Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said New Zealand had joined the COVAX Facility, which he said was crucial because while there were several vaccines under development the chance of success for any individual candidate was low.
It allowed countries to share risk with other participating countries by co-investing in a range of vaccine candidates.
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“This way we can spread the risk, and keep our options open,” Peters said.
COVAX, which was recently launched by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, incentivises pharmaceutical companies to produce more of any vaccine.
Members in the global initiative, which already vaccinates millions of children worldwide for a range of diseases, includes the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“If and when a safe, effective Covid-19 vaccine is developed, global demand will initially outstrip supply,” Peters said.
“It is vitally important that we are part of any global initiative to pool purchasing power and share the risk involved in investing in vaccines at this early stage, to ensure we don’t miss out.”
Peters confirmed on Thursday that joining the alliance took some negotiation.
“We all thought it was a good idea, so the work went into it and I’m delighted we got into it and got it going.”
By joining the facility now, New Zealand will be able to help shape the way it works and how a vaccine is eventually distributed, he said.
The details, including New Zealand’s financial contributions, were still being determined but the Government has set aside funding for international partnerships.
On Thursday Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods said money was set aside in New Zealand’s vaccine strategy to be part of international collaborations.
In May, the Government announced it was pumping $37m into the Covid-19 vaccine strategy that would enable local manufacturing and international lobbying, to ensure New Zealand and Pacific Islands get a fair share when one is developed.
Woods said when it came to manufacture and supply, there would likely be a global shortage, and the strategy was essential.
She would be repeating back to Cabinet this month about the ongoing efforts.
“We are working particularly with the research community around whom we need to get involved and want to ensure we have all the scientific expertise in our country coming together.”
“We are also continuing to work with an international framework and collaborations that are starting to form around this.”
Meanwhile, health experts have slammed the US for securing for itself a large supply of the only drug licensed so far to treat Covid-19.
On Monday, the US government announced it had an agreement with Gilead Sciences to make the bulk of its production of remdesivir available to Americans during the next three months.
The Department of Health and Human Services said it had secured 500,000 treatments of the drug through September, representing 100 per cent of Gilead’s July production capacity and 90 per cent of its capacity in August and September.
“To the extent possible, we want to ensure that any American patient who needs remdesivir can get it,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement.
Ohid Yaqub, a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex, called the US agreement “disappointing news”.
“It so clearly signals an unwillingness to cooperate with other countries and the chilling effect this has on international agreements about intellectual property rights,” Yaqub said in a statement
Until now, Gilead had donated treatment courses to the US and other countries. That ended Tuesday and Gilead this week announced the price of the treatment going forward. In 127 poor or middle-income countries, Gilead is allowing generic makers to supply the drug.
In a statement on Wednesday, the California-based Gilead said its agreement with the US allowed for unneeded supplies to be sent to other countries. The company said it was “working as quickly as possible” to enable access worldwide. But it noted that the US was seeing a significant rise in Covid cases, while “most EU and other developed countries have reduced their levels of disease considerably”.
Early trials testing remdesivir in patients hospitalised with Covid-19 found that those who received the drug recovered more quickly than those who didn’t. It is the only drug licensed by both the US and the European Union as a treatment for those with severe illness from the coronavirus.
Dr Peter Horby, who is running a large study testing several treatments for Covid-19, told the BBC that “a stronger framework” was needed to ensure fair prices and access to key medicines for people and nations around the world. He said that as an American company, Gilead was likely under “certain political pressures locally”.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, declined to criticise the United States for the move, but said the UK had a “sufficient stock” of remdesivir for patients who needed it, but didn’t specify how much that was.
Thomas Senderovitz, head of the Danish Medicines Agency, told Danish broadcaster DR that the move could endanger Europeans and others down the road.
“I have never seen anything like that. That a company chooses to sell their stock to only one country. It’s very strange and quite inappropriate,” he said. “Right now we have enough to make it through the summer if the intake of patients is as it is now. If a second wave comes, we may be challenged.”
Gilead had been developing remdesivir for years as a viral treatment, aided by millions in funding from the US government, before it was tried for coronavirus. The company’s statement said that Gilead was exploring ways to support access to remdesivir beyond the US and the 127 developing countries.
Dr Penny Ward of King’s College London, noted that many countries had legal provisions that allowed them to prohibit the exportation of drugs to other countries during an emergency.
“It is unreasonable to expect that the US government should deny their population access to drugs manufactured in the USA,” she said.
Ward pointed out that another drug that had recently shown may help people with severe Covid-19, the cheap steroid dexamathasone, was long off-patent and available globally.
The US has the worst coronavirus outbreak in the world, with 2.6 million reported infected and 127,000 confirmed virus-related deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. To date, Covid-19 has affected more than 10.5 million people worldwide, killing around 512,000, according to Johns Hopkins.
Top US infectious diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci told senators on Tuesday that the US outbreak was “going in the wrong direction” and he feared the country could see 100,000 new infections a day if things didn’t improve. The US is seeing about 40,000 new cases a day currently.