A group of vaccine experts have just released a list listing over 100 companies in Africa and Asia that could produce mRNA vaccines as Omicron, a coronavirus variant, spreads at an unprecedented rate. They claim it is the best solution to combat vaccine inequity worldwide and the spread of coronavirus variants like Omicron. We speak with Achal Prabhala who is one of the vaccine experts that compiled the list. If mRNA technology could be shared with the listed companies, “we could vaccinate the world in as close to six months from now,” says Prabhala. “These are very much the people’s vaccines. It’s just that they are private property.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN:Omicron, the new coronavirus variant, is spreading at an unprecedented pace around the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cases of this heavily mutated variant have already been confirmed in 77 countries. There are likely many more that have not yet detected it.
With international infections on the rise, the Biden administration faces renewed pressure to keep his seven-month-old pledge that companies would not be protected intellectually by coronavirus vaccines and to share them with the rest of the world.
A group of vaccine experts just released a list listing over 100 companies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that could produce mRNA vaccines for fighting polio. COVID-19. They say it’s one of the most viable solutions to fight vaccine inequity around the world and combat the spread of coronavirus variants, including Omicron.
For more, we’re joined by Achal Prabhala. He is the coordinator of AccessIBSA, which promotes access to medicine in India, Brazil, and South Africa. He’s the co-author of this new report.
Welcome back Democracy Now!, Achal. Can you lay out this new list that you’ve compiled that shows that production of mRNA vaccines is possible outside the United States and Europe? What are these 100 companies in the world?
ACHAL PRABHALA:Amy, thank you. It’s nice to be back.
Omicron is the background to our report. Omicron is a term that refers to the fact that we are still trying to determine how infectious it is and how severe it is. However, we do know a few things. We know that all existing double-dose vaccines work less well against Omicron, which means that those who’ve had two doses of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine in the United States need a booster. What we also know is that it’s highly transmissible and that it’s inevitably going to lead to a surge in cases, regardless of how severe they are.
What that in turn means for existing vaccine inequity, which is pretty deep — Nigeria has less than 2% of its population vaccinated as compared to countries in southern Europe, where the percentage is in the eighties — what it means is that vaccine inequity suddenly becomes worse. Why? Because everyone is now in need of more vaccines.
Our report is on mRNA vaccines, because they are a remarkable technology that we haven’t yet fully understood, meaning that they are not biology-based. They don’t require cells to be grown. It means that they can be made faster and more easily than the previous vaccines we used before 2020.
We looked for companies that meet the technical requirements and have the facilities to make mRNA-based vaccines. And we found, to our astonishment, that there are at least 120 companies across Africa, Asia and Latin America who could be producing millions of doses of these vaccines, which, unfortunately, in the situation that we’re in — at a precipice — is really the only way by which we can get billions more vaccines into the world in the next three to six months.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Achal, we’ll get to details about those companies, but if you could talk first about your own vaccination experience? You’re in India. You were almost six months old when you received the AstraZeneca vaccination. What are your concerns right now? Your family received AstraZeneca. What are your concerns about January 2022?
ACHAL PRABHALA: I’m really concerned about us. I’m really concerned about the ones I love and the ones you love, Nermeen. And it’s because it’s — come January 1st, 2022, my clock will be reset. Six months ago I was vaccinated with two doses AstraZeneca. I’m one of the lucky people who lives in a poor country — I’m middle-class, I have credit cards. And yet, come January 1st, I will be as good as unvaccinated for the purposes of travel to Europe, to Israel, to a range of other countries, if I haven’t had a booster, which, by the way, India has no plans of giving out to people my age and does not have the supplies to give out even if it wanted to. I am unvaccinated.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine provides about 10% protection against Omicron. This is something that I worry about not as much for myself as for my parents, who are in their seventies and eighties, for my sister, who’s physically disabled and requires round-the-clock nursing care. She can’t afford to self-isolate.
This is a remarkable situation for a large portion of the world, who has received only two doses of vaccine and doesn’t have immediate prospects of receiving a booster. We will reset the clock effectively when January arrives and Omicron spreads more widely around the globe. We’ll all be back to where we were on January 1st, 2021, at the beginning of this year: unvaccinated, vulnerable and afraid.
This is a dangerous situation. To go through cycles like this is not how we plan to exit the pandemic, and it’s not how we will. Unfortunately, as bad as it seems today, it’s going to get worse. And unless something dramatically changes with vaccine supply, we are condemned to repeat these horrific cycles of surges and infections and unknowns, which not only have a — have not only caused a huge dramatic effect on people’s lives but also on people’s economies and livelihoods.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Achal, you said earlier that these hundred companies, over hundred companies that you’ve identified that could manufacture these mRNA vaccines, could produce millions of doses. If you have any estimates, could you please give details about how many doses can be produced and in what timeframes, as well as the global impact. You pointed out that only 2% of the population in Nigeria, Africa’s largest country, is vaccinated. How big of an impact would rapid production of these vaccines make?
ACHAL PRABHALA:This is easy to explain Nermeen. If the mRNA technology Pfizer, BioNTech, and Moderna have developed and implemented to good effect, we could vacciinate the entire world in less than six months. This is not a theory. It’s not theoretical. It’s based, in fact, on a model of existing partnerships that companies like Moderna have with very similar manufacturers, except they’re located in Spain instead of Bangladesh or Senegal or Tunisia.
What we’re asking for is for the same model that Moderna and Pfizer know — know — works to be implemented with as many companies as possible across the world, so that they can all start making the vaccines in the entities required. It would take about 2,500 square feet. To create hundreds of millions upon millions of vaccines, you need to make a small investment. If we brought these companies together, if we provided them the technology and the licenses they require — something that Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna, they hold in their hands, literally; they literally just have to open up their hands and allow other people to take what they have — and if they did that, we would be able to vaccinate the world as quickly and as effectively as possible.
But further, we’d have additional protections. If it turns out that the Omicron variant requires a reformulated vaccine, let’s say, then we’re all back to zero. We’re all starting again. In this case, the mRNA technology can be used to adapt into a new formula. It’s faster to do it, and it’s easier to do it with an mRNA vaccine. And so, getting a lot of companies around the world — in Africa, Latin America and Asia — prepared, not just to withstand the current moment but future moments, will be just the very best solution in this pandemic.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Achal Prabhala, explain what’s going on. Moderna and Pfizer are based in the United States. BioNTech is based in Germany. The U.S. has invested billions in the development of Moderna, for instance. And you have the chairman of Moderna, Noubar Afeyan, saying very clearly, “We will not go after any company that wants to reproduce our mRNA vaccine.” So, what exactly is the issue here? Moderna can also be sued by the U.S. because they have invested so much money in research. With Pfizer, they promised to buy billions of dollars’ worth of vaccines. Both cases involved large amounts of public money. Moderna’s chair claims that any company could do this. So what’s stopping these 100 companies? Actually, the explicit sharing the formula.
ACHAL PRABHALA: That’s right. So, these vaccines were created through public money — nearly $500 million of German public money from taxpayers to BioNTech, nearly a billion dollars in money from U.S. taxpayers through the government to Moderna, several billions of dollars after that in exchange for buying back vaccines at high prices. So these are very much the people’s vaccines. It’s just that they are private property.
The Moderna is here! CEO says, “Oh, anyone can make the Moderna vaccine,” he’s being a bit disingenuous. This is like giving people the pieces of a Lego box, let’s say, without an instruction manual to make some very complicated puzzle and saying, “You figure it out.” It’s not really possible to do that. The way vaccines operate and how regulation around them works is that they must be approved and licensed. Moderna, Pfizer, or BioNTech must authorize companies to manufacture their vaccine. They must share an instruction manual on how to do it. They should share some assistance in the supply chain, which includes all the items required to make the vaccine. This is not as difficult as it sounds. This is only a question about authorization and a small amount of assistance. They could even make revenue from it. Nobody in India gets the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. They would get a portion of what we paid for them if we took them. So it’s a solution that works for everyone.
The problem is, what it does is that it loosens Moderna and Pfizer and BioNTech’s stranglehold on these vaccines at the moment. It undercuts the massive tens of billions of dollars of profit and revenue that they can earn off selling to poor countries in the next couple of years, once they’re done with rich countries. And it seems that they don’t want that to happen and will do as much as they can not have it happen, which is why we’re asking the U.S. and German governments instead to say, “Look, in the face of this intransigence, it’s time to use emergency laws, that exist, that you can use, that you have the moral and legal power to put into effect, and end this pandemic for us and bring us out of this incredible cycle of hell.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Achal, though, could you respond to some of the early concerns about these vaccines being manufactured in countries outside Europe and North America, the U.S., and concerns about how these vaccines could be administered outside these countries — first, the concerns about the fact that they have to be kept at massively subzero temperatures, and what countries have the capacity to do that for large numbers of mRNA vaccines, transporting these vaccines, and then, lastly, the question of maintaining quality control, where these vaccines are being produced? Could you speak about the quality issue and the fact that some of these companies are already producing drugs that can be used in Europe and North America?
ACHAL PRABHALA:Nermeen, these are all great questions. First, mRNA technology continues to evolve. Thermostable vaccines will soon be available, which require no refrigeration. Even the original refrigeration marks used for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have been updated. They don’t need as stringent refrigeration as we thought initially.
Now, in terms of quality, it’s always been the case that people have suspected, even within India, quality standards in India or in countries in sub-Saharan Africa or in Latin America, their own countries’ regulation. However, the companies that we’ve chosen here have all made an exactly similar product to a vaccine, but not only have they made it, they’ve exported it, to the United States, to the European Union and to the WHOAll of them had to inspect their facilities and certify that they met the highest international standards of good manufacturing practices. So these are companies that are already making the things that go into your arms through injections, and they are absolutely, certainly capable of doing that again with mRNA vaccines and really solving a pandemic not just for the countries in which they’re based but for you, for everyone, for all of us, if only they were allowed to.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally — we just have 20 seconds — what is the most important thing that President Biden here in the United States could do to make this happen?
ACHAL PRABHALA: President Biden can bring Moderna to the White House, sit them across the table, say that we have laws that can force you to do what we are asking you to do, but we’d rather you just do it instead, work out that agreement, and then let it go and take credit for vaccinating the world.
AMY GOODMAN:Achal Prabhala, thank you so much, coordinator of AccessIBSA which advocates for vaccines, medicine in South Africa, Brazil, India.
Next, we’ll discuss the humanitarian crisis facing Afghanistan, which has become a major concern since the Taliban took power and cut off financial aid from the United States and other donors. We’ll speak to New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll, his new piece, “The Secret History of the U.S. Diplomatic Failure in Afghanistan: A trove of unreleased documents reveals a dispiriting record of misjudgment, hubris, and delusion that led to the fall of the Western-backed government.” Stay with us.