Cost of vaccinating billions against Covid-19 put at more than $20bn

The cost to immunise people around the world against coronavirus is likely to exceed $20bn, far surpassing the initial fundraising target of $8bn set for an EU-led donors’ meeting to be held on Monday, global health organisations say.

International health bodies suggest the full cost could reach $25bn, once funding needed to produce doses in vast numbers and distribute them globally is taken into account.

The figure highlights the financial, political and logistical difficulties ahead, even as architects of the G20-backed online pledging conference hosted from Brussels scrambled over the weekend to hit the $8bn (7.5m euros) benchmark.

“We are calling it a downpayment on a much larger set of asks to come,” Joe Cerrell, head of global policy and advocacy for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told the FT. “The G20 seems to be taking pretty seriously the scale of the cause — now it’s important to get more into the nature of the financing needed.”

European officials hope at least 30 countries will take part in the Brussels event, which is part of a wider international initiative launched by the World Health Organization last month to boost testing, treatment and the search for a vaccine.

The G20 and other nations are expected to pledge money — although the US, which announced last month it was suspending funding to the WHO, has not publicly said it will participate.

European leaders acknowledged on Sunday that the first $8bn would cover only “initial needs” and said manufacturing and delivering pandemic medicines on a global scale would “require resources well above the target”.

“The funds that we raise will kick-start an unprecedented global co-operation between scientists and regulators, industry and governments, international organisations, foundations and healthcare professionals,” said an article in The Independent, co-authored by Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, Charles Michel, her European Council counterpart, and the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Norway.

“If we can develop a vaccine that is produced by the world, for the whole world, this will be a unique global public good of the 21st century,” it added.

Organisers of the Brussels event acknowledge that funding the search for a vaccine — 200 candidates for which are under consideration by scientists — is only the first in a series of big financial demands.

Pharmaceutical companies have already called for some kind of assurance via upfront payments for the risks they will take on in investing large sums to expand manufacturing capacity to meet demand for a vaccine.

Seth Berkley, head of Gavi, an international organisation that uses donor funding to supply vaccines to the world’s poorest countries, said discussions were under way to repurpose financial mechanisms previously deployed for other vaccines for coronavirus.

These include the International Finance Facility for Immunisation (Iffim), which allows donor governments to “front-load” support by swiftly disbursing money raised on capital markets. The funding is underwritten by guarantees it will be reimbursed from future aid budgets.

Gavi has also used “Advanced Market Commitments”, which reduce uncertainty by using aid pledges to guarantee vaccine companies a large volume of purchases.

Concerns have also been raised over ensuring money pledged at the Brussels conference is spent accountably and equitably.

Anna Marriott, health policy manager for Oxfam, the international aid agency, said there must be a clear plan that puts “frontline workers and vulnerable people, including those in poor countries, at the front of the queue”.

“Government donors should ensure that the money they pledge comes with conditions attached, to guarantee successful treatments and vaccines are available to everybody, free of charge,” she said. “The priority is the public good, not big pharmaceutical company profits.”

Aid organisations have also expressed concern that resources could be over-concentrated on vaccines, at the expense of other essential ways to tackle Covid-19, including diagnostic tests and therapeutics.

“I’m just a little concerned about the current efforts being too vaccine and research and development-focused,” said the head of one leading organisation.

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