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COVID-19 and vaccine equity panel: what can the World Trade Organization contribute?

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I will start by recognizing my sister Ngozi, and I would like to also recognize all the names she mentioned; all protocol observed.

The only thing I would like to say in recognizing colleagues is to express my congratulations to Secretary Katherine Tai, who is joining us for the first time.

Excellencies, distinguished guests, dear colleagues and friends,

Good afternoon and thank you so much for the opportunity to share a few reflections with you today.

The development, approval and rollout of safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19 less than a year after the first reported cases is a stunning scientific achievement, and a much-needed source of hope for bringing the pandemic under control.

But as you also know, there remains a shocking and growing imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines - my sister Ngozi said some of them.

More than 800 million vaccine doses have been administered globally, but over 83% have gone to high-income or upper middle-income countries, while low income countries have received just 0.2%.

This, unfortunately, is not surprising. When HIV emerged 40 years ago, life-saving antiretrovirals were developed, but more than a decade passed before the world’s poor got access.

COVAX was created, as you know, almost a year ago to avoid the same thing happening again.

And although COVAX has distributed almost 40 million doses of vaccine to 110 countries and economies, vaccine nationalism, vaccine diplomacy and severe supply constraints have so far prevented COVAX from realizing its full potential.

Global manufacturing capacity and supply chains have not been sufficient to deliver vaccines quickly and equitably where they are needed most.

More funding is needed, but that’s only part of the solution. Money doesn’t help if there are no vaccines to buy.

We need to dramatically scale up the number of vaccines being produced.

To address this challenge, WHO and our partners have established a COVAX manufacturing task force, to increase supply in the short term, but also to build a platform for sustainable vaccine manufacturing to support regional health security.

We need to go beyond the traditional modus operandi to provide sustainable and effective solutions to address this extraordinary crisis.

Some manufacturers have begun sharing the know-how and technologies to produce more vaccines, but only under restrictive conditions, on a very limited basis.

The current company-controlled production sharing agreements are not coming close to meeting the overwhelming public health and socio-economic needs for effective, affordable and equitable access to vaccines, as well as therapeutics and other critical health technologies.

This is an unprecedented emergency that demands unprecedented measures.

We must leave no stone unturned. We must explore every option for increasing production, including voluntary licenses, technology pools, the use of TRIPS flexibilities and the waiver of certain intellectual property provisions.

Let me outline three ways in which we believe the obstacles we face can be overcome, production can be increased and lives can be saved.

First, we call on companies to share know-how, intellectual property and data with other qualified vaccine manufacturers, including in low-and middle-income countries.

Nearly a year ago, WHO launched the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, or C-TAP, which was proposed by the President of Costa Rica and supported by 40 other countries as a mechanism for sharing transparent and non-exclusive voluntary licenses.

Like COVAX, it holds enormous potential, but like COVAX, that potential has not been fulfilled.

WHO is also calling for expressions of interest to establish technology transfer hubs to assist countries acquire vaccine technology and know-how as rapidly as possible.

Second, we urge countries to strengthen their regulatory capacity.

WHO is ready to provide support for national regulatory authorities to become WHO listed authorities, as an important enabler for successful technology transfer and market entry of health products.

And third, we call on countries to invest in local vaccine manufacturing.

There are already many vaccine manufacturers in middle-income countries that have produced vaccines that have been prequalified by WHO, showing they can meet international standards for quality, safety and efficacy.

WHO will continue to provide technical assistance to these companies to build capacity and add additional manufacturing bases across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

We encourage all countries to support the draft resolution on strengthening local production of medicines and other health technologies which will be considered at the World Health Assembly.

Excellencies, my sisters and brothers,

Responding to this unprecedented crisis means thinking and doing things differently.

Putting aside the old barriers and the limitations of short-term self-interest is the only way to build the safer, healthier and fairer world we all want.

I thank you.