Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, spoke to Financial Times correspondent Vanessa Kortekaas on 25 June 2020 about the global race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. He emphasized the importance of prioritising access to at-risk populations, supply chain scale issues that must be considered, why there is no future in vaccine nationalism, and why investment in vaccines is of utmost importance in restoring the global economy to health.
We have to focus our vaccine strategies on those at highest risk. Vaccine nationalism – in other words, ‘I’ll make a vaccine for my country or region and leave the rest of the world for later’ – that is not enlightened self-interest.
Jeremy Farrar, The Wellcome Trust
After giving a brief overview of the 20 lead vaccine candidates, Farrar switched gears to comment on the need to prioritise vaccine access for more vulnerable populations around the world, “Over time we will need to vaccinate a very large population of the world, seven billion people. But to begin with, we would have to target those at highest risk: healthcare workers, the elderly, people from other backgrounds who have suffered disproportionately in this infection.”
Farrar went on to give his insights into production and distribution challenges for a vaccine of this scale, “Having a vaccine that we can offer to 1,000 people is not enough. If we’re going to have an exit strategy for this pandemic, we’re going to have to vaccinate very large numbers of people around the world. That means doing the science, the research and development, in parallel rather than in sequence. It means making sure we can turn that vaccine into the billions of doses that we need to provide for the world. It means thinking, ‘if I had 200 million doses of a vaccine, could I put it into a vial? Have I got enough syringes? Do I have a cold chain that can deliver this all over the world?’ Instead of having to do that one after another, we’re having to do it at risk, at scale, as a global manufacturing base, in ways we’ve never had to do before.”
When asked about equitable access for all countries and whether giving access to poorer countries and at-risk populations is a realistic endeavour, he replied that it absolutely must be realistic, “It’s the right thing to do. Healthcare workers have suffered disproportionately, as have the elderly. We have to focus our vaccine strategies on those at highest risk. Vaccine nationalism – in other words, ‘I’ll make a vaccine for my country or region and leave the rest of the world for later’ – that is not enlightened self-interest. Not only is it the wrong ethical and moral thing to do, but it’s also not sensible. It’s not smart science. The best way of addressing this pandemic is to see it as a global issue. Until we deal with this as a global issue, none of us are going to be safe.”
The US response to the pandemic, along with its apparent lack of political collaboration, has drawn criticism from around the globe. Farrar’s response to this issue was to comment that he can’t speak to political rhetoric, but instead praised the scientific community for thinking beyond borders: “At a scientific level, we have many partnerships and collaborations that are continuing both in the US and China. We are very much engaged. What we can influence is the partnerships at the scientific, the research, and the manufacturing levels, independent of which country you’re in. There is no future in nationalism or in a polarised world. Nationalism is not the future. At a scientific level, we’re making great progress.”
Finally, speaking about international investments from foundations such as the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation, as well as governments, Farrar mentioned that though USD 8 billion seems an enormous sum, the future benefits reaped for the economy will far outweigh the cost. “If you look at what the world is losing, as a global economy, it is hundreds of billions of dollars a week. The longer this goes on, the longer this will make countries [of all economic levels] suffer. The impact on the younger generations, on employment, on societies in general, is going to be profound and long-lasting. The quicker we come out of this, through therapeutics, vaccines, diagnostics and enhanced public health, the better the world economy will be. So whatever we spend at the moment will come to be seen in history as a tiny fragment of what the world has lost through its economy.”