TRIPS AND PUBLIC HEALTH

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The technical symposium on “COVID-19 vaccine supply chain and regulatory transparency” was a follow-up to the meeting on “COVID-19 and Vaccine Equity: What Can the WTO Contribute?”, convened by Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on 14 April.

WTO Deputy Director-General Anabel González opened the symposium, calling for enhanced collaboration among stakeholders to provide insights into how to overcome bottlenecks in vaccine supply chains. DDG González stressed that “trade has been a positive force during the pandemic by enabling access to much-needed medical supplies around the world, and can be further leveraged to facilitate access”.

DDG González listed some of the elements the WTO can contribute to ramping up production of vaccines and fostering vaccine equity. These include efforts to identify export restrictions, encouraging greater cooperation and partnerships through voluntary licensing and technology transfer, and monitoring trade policies. She also underlined the importance of building the capacity of regulatory authorities to ensure safety, quality and efficacy of vaccines and other medical products, and the need to collect granular trade data in support of facilitating vaccine manufacturing and supply chains. Her full remarks are available here.

Dr Mariângela Batista Galvão Simão, Assistant Director-General for Access to Medicines and Health Products at the World Health Organization (WHO), said that for those working on access to medical products COVID-19 was a “déjà-vu” situation. “The response to HIV should have been a lesson learned because it took more than 10 years for effective treatments to reach low- and middle-income countries, costing tens of millions of lives,” she said.

Dr Galvão noted the enormous pressure exerted by COVID-19 on health systems, which is having a powerful economic and human impact across the world. She called for concrete contributions from industry, governments and other stakeholders to fight the pandemic. Her full remarks are available here.

Ricardo Treviño Chapa, Deputy Secretary-General of the World Customs Organization (WCO), outlined the steps taken by his organization in facilitating and securing the cross-border movement of medicines, vaccines, and related supplies and equipment. WCO has also played an active role in preventing fraudulent and illegal trade in vaccines and medicines and has contributed to eliminating customs bottlenecks to ease the flow of vaccine manufacturing inputs and components, Mr Treviño Chapa said. “We will continue to actively engage with the WTO, WHO and manufacturers in the identification and facilitation of critical supplies for vaccine manufacturing … We remain open to expanding our cooperation with the pharmaceutical industry, and all relevant international organizations,” he added. His full remarks are available here.

Thirty-one speakers took part in four separate sessions. They noted that some vaccine manufacturers had been more successful than others in their efforts to scale up production. Adequate access to inputs, equipment and a skilled workforce was identified as a limiting factor. They stressed that international trade will play an increasingly important role. Scaling up production needed to be guided by efforts to understand the entire supply chain. Identifying inputs was challenging, as it required up-to-date data and the current customs' classification did not allow for a granular analysis of trade flows.

Speakers highlighted that work was under way to establish a joint indicative list of critical vaccine input supplies as part of a collaborative effort coordinated by the WTO to understand how these inputs move across borders and the bottlenecks they are facing. Some called for more structured transparency initiatives to be able to address the current crisis and to build resilient supply chains for the future. 

Shortages of various inputs were reported. These include the so-called “consumables” used in the vaccine manufacturing process. Speakers also highlighted that preserving the free flow of goods was essential for vaccine manufacturing to increase. Moving from the production and distribution of approximately 2.8 billion doses (by end June 2021) to a projected 10 billion doses (by December 2021) would require an intensification of trade in inputs, vaccines and ancillary products needed for vaccination campaigns, they said (see figure below).  

A wide range of experts drew on their practical experience to stress the importance of international cooperation among regulators, as well as the need for high-quality regulatory pathways in order to provide fast and effective responses to the pandemic. Challenges include lack of regulatory capacity in certain countries, different regulatory requirements, the need to produce additional data and the uncertainty about emergency use approvals, i.e. whether those approvals would be made permanent or not. Also, more transparency was needed, they emphasized, not only regarding the work of regulators, but also from industry and academia (for example, in respect of clinical trial data).

Panellists called for the WTO to step up its critical role in working with others to defeat the pandemic, stressing that it could look at the entire ecosystem relevant for ramping up manufacturing, transferring technology and know-how, and maintaining the free flow of vaccines, inputs and other technologies.

In her closing remarks, Deputy Director-General Angela Ellard spoke of the role of trade in ending the COVID-19 health crisis, the importance of partnerships and international cooperation, and the need for predictability and transparency to transcend this and future crises. She said that to bring the pandemic under control, the contribution of trade must grow, not diminish. “By working in concert, we can speed things up. We can work to ensure the safety, quality, and efficacy of approved vaccines.  And we can seize the many opportunities to speed up the circulation of vaccines and other critical goods by widening the trade arteries through trade facilitating mechanisms.” Her full remarks are available here.  

The programme of the event and the background materials are available here.

The webcast is available on the WTO YouTube Channel.

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