Two of the world’s most powerful figures in the fight against the pandemic faced off in July during a closed-door virtual summit on how to get more vaccine to the world’s poorest people.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called out a “shocking imbalance” in the supply of vaccines and said it was unacceptable that manufacturers had overwhelmingly supplied rich countries at the highest prices, according to a half dozen people who were listening.
Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla, whose company’s miracle shot had inoculated more than a billion people, responded, saying Tedros was speaking “emotionally.”
“Actually, I’m not being emotional,” Tedros said. He said he just wanted to get more vaccines into arms.
The previously unreported exchange laid bare an uncomfortable truth: Vaccine inequality didn’t happen by itself. It was the result of decisions by corporate executives and government officials. Nearly a year after the first roll-outs, Western vaccine producers and public health officials are still struggling to close a yawning gap. Americans and Europeans flush with immunizations are starting to put the pandemic in the past, while it still roils much of the world.
How we got to this point is only now coming into focus. Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson initially sent most of their doses to wealthy countries rather than poorer ones. Then, they took different paths.
Pfizer, with German partner BioNTech, became the No.1 Covid vaccine supplier for the wealthiest countries and expects $36 billion in revenue from the shot this year. After months of pressure, it has started increasing deliveries to low- and mid-income nations. AstraZeneca, by contrast, quickly sent supply to poorer countries. Moderna and J&J turned out to be relatively small global players.
Lurking behind the fight over vaccine equity is a proposal by South Africa and India to waive intellectual property protections on Covid vaccines and treatments at the World Trade Organization. Bourla has been an outspoken opponent, calling IP the “blood of the private sector.” Still, Pfizer is taking a different approach with its highly effective Covid pill, promising to share technology so more manufacturers can produce it. That’s good news, but poor countries still need more vaccines to end the pandemic.—BLOOMBERG