The lack of a coordinated international effort to contain COVID-19 was a failure of global governance that has tragically cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Fortunately, we now have a second chance to develop an effective and harmonized framework for vaccines—now, and for the inevitable next global wave of this pandemic, or the next one.
As things stand, global cooperation on vaccines barely exists. But these kinds of alliances—to create, distribute and apply vaccines for the world from day one—are the alliances of the future. To do this, we must draw on vast resources, existing expertise, and the most effective form of international medical collaboration that we can manage, for the sake of global survival. We cannot let people pay for vaccine competition with their lives. It’s that urgent, and that simple.
Thankfully, a model for the harmonized framework that I am talking about already exists.
In 2019, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched Project Orbis, a partnership with Australia, Brazil, Canada, Singapore, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, to facilitate faster patient access to innovative cancer therapies across many countries, resulting in increased efficiency through concurrent submission, sharing and review of data, and through standardizing pivotal clinical trials.
Project Orbis has already demonstrated remarkable outcomes. In its first year, there were 38 approvals of new oncology applications. Most recently, it helped bring a groundbreaking lung cancer drug, sotorasib (marketed in the U.S. as Lumakras) to market in unprecedented time. For any of us who have ever lost a loved one to cancer, you will know what this means. And, for any of us who have been directly affected by COVID-19, you will know what this could mean.
If we can coordinate a harmonized policy framework for cancer trials for the approval of life-saving drugs, why can’t we do the same for vaccines? It would be cheaper and faster than the current approach of reallocating hundreds of millions of excess vaccines from advanced economies while under-vaccinated countries become the harbinger of new waves and new variants of concern like Delta that spread worldwide.
Beyond our human obligation, there is now also an overwhelming strategic imperative for this kind of collaboration on vaccines. As it becomes increasingly important to think about future vaccine development, and how much experience and capacity exists internationally, we cannot avoid the simple fact that increased efficiency is achieved by sustainable collaboration. In the future, we’ll be able to develop and distribute vaccines with greater uniformity and compatibility of international study and standards.
In June, G7 Health Ministers took a crucially important step in support of this kind of collaboration around large international vaccine trials when they announced the Therapeutics and Vaccines Clinical Trials Charter. This will make it faster and easier to share results from vaccine and other therapeutic trials, and effectively create worldwide access approved treatments.
Imagine if Moderna and Pfizer and other leading global drug companies had started to coordinate the development of vaccines for the next pandemic from day one, on a platform already in place, and approved to act. If we had invested in this kind of technology and shared platform at the onset of this pandemic, we wouldn’t have to be making billions of vaccines simply because we waited for the pandemic to become a global crisis.
China should also now be invited to join this G7-led Clinical Trials Charter. It’s time to break down the doors to renewed global collaboration on all fronts.
The World Bank, IMF, WTO and the WHO have also begun closely monitoring vaccine production and how that production translates into delivery, in order to match needs to distribution. And while more and more countries want to be part of this, what is also required is the fast-tracking of cutting-edge research and development by removing red tape — while keeping to the highest standards — in order to allow future vaccines to get onto the global market and into people’s arms faster.
We may have spent the last 20-30 years globalizing the supply chain to improve functionality, reduce costs and allocate supplies in short demand, but this pandemic has shown us to fall short on all counts when it comes to vaccines. Successful global collaboration on future vaccine development and distribution will allow us to open our economies faster when a pandemic strikes, send kids back to school sooner, get business back together, and avoid the knock-on effects on longer term poverty and mental health issues because we didn’t invest time or energy in something as basic as sharing.
The experience of the last year means we know our foe better now. The success of Project Orbis is a reminder we also know how to mutually assure our protection by forging a collaborative path forward.
This is an edited version of a speech delivered to this year’s Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity