Top pharma official rejects idea of free Covid-19 vaccine for all

A patient receives a shot in the first-stage study of a potential vaccine for Covid-19 on March 16, 2020, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle, United States Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

A leading representative of the pharmaceutical industry has downplayed the idea of a vaccine against the new coronavirus that is “free for all” when available. 

This content was published on May 18, 2020 - 14:17

In Switzerland, where the health system works well, it doesn’t make sense to have access to a free vaccine, Thomas Cueni, director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), told reporters in a virtual briefing on Monday. 

Cueni said he shared the objective of fair, widespread and low-cost access to products around the world. But he said a global distribution system piloted by the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) was needed to lower prices in poorer countries.

“I would expect countries like Switzerland to show solidarity and a willingness to pay a bit more than other countries, where I hope patients can get free vaccines,” he said. “This is a lot more realistic than to say everyone should have access to free vaccines.” 

Cueni made the comments as health ministers from around the world were taking part in a virtual meeting of the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s decision-making body. During the two-day session states will vote on an EU resolution that calls for “universal, timely and equitable access” to Covid-19 treatments and vaccines against the disease.

‘People’s vaccine’ 

In a parallel initiative, around 150 world leaders and experts signed an open letterExternal link urging health ministers at the event to rally behind a “people’s vaccine” made available for all people, in all countries, free of charge without patent restrictions.

Scientists are rushing to find treatments and vaccines for a disease that has killed over 310,000 people worldwide. More than 120 vaccines are currently being developed globally, with eight in the clinical trial phase. But experts say the process could take years and may not happen at all. 

Cueni estimates it will take a year before a vaccine can be mass produced. But when it is ready, not everyone will be able to get it straight away; health workers will be first in line, he added. 

The IFPMA is a partner of a major initiative launched earlier this month by the EU, Britain, Norway, Japan, Canada and Saudi Arabia – but without the United States – which raised $8 billion (CHF7.7 billion) in pledges for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.

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