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CWA # 280, 9 May 2020

COVID-19 fundraising
EU, minus the US, leads the global cooperation for the vaccine

  Sourina Bej

The fundraising marathon is likely to continue until the end of May received key donations of one billion euro from EC, 500 million euro from France and Germany, one billion dollar from Norway, 100 million euro from Italy and several philanthropist organizations such as the Gates and Melinda foundation and international aid organizations like the World Bank. 

On 5 May, leaders from across the world pledged 8.07 billion dollars in a digital fundraiser held to raise money for developing a coronavirus vaccine and treatments. The fundraiser, hosted by the European Commission (EC) of the European Union (EU), saw participation from several G-20 countries including Germany, Norway, France, Britain, Italy, Japan and Saudi Arabia. 

China remained a silent spectator with representation from its ambassador to the EU and no pledge. With no representation, the US became the only major country to avoid the EU-led fundraiser for the search of the vaccine. 

This pledging marathon that is likely to continue until the end of May received key donations of one billion euro from EC, 500 million euro from France and Germany, one billion dollar from Norway, 100 million euro from Italy and several philanthropist organizations such as the Gates and Melinda foundation and international aid organizations like the World Bank. 

Apart from the striking remark by the EC President Ursula von der Leyen to make healthcare affordable and accessible, what was prominent was the missing voices from other global leaders like US, China, Russia and a consorted voice from the developing countries. Hence what now seems like an EU-led initiative, will it be the only western driven voice for global cooperation or became a primer for a geopolitical race to ace the vaccine?

EU's clarion call, but with ambiguities 
Since the beginning, the fundraiser was not devoid of controversies, ambiguities and tall promises on universalism. First, by allowing countries to pledge money that they had already spent on COVID-19 relief since 30 January, the EU officials have not given an account of the new funds as part of the recorded pledges. The Commission stands ambiguous on how much of the countries' pledges are made up of new funds as against their old relief funds.

Second, the question of how the EU would distribute the money remains unaddressed. While the 8 billion euro is a substantial amount to drive the vaccine research, the EU has so far not imposed price caps on the pharmaceutical manufacturers, or force these companies that receive public funds to give up their intellectual property. With no mandatory licensing, for example, or less drastically, patent pools or cross-licensing—the drugs and vaccines will not be easily mass-produced cheaply. Hence the idea of making the medicine affordable is a tricky subject when property rights and patents trademarks are involved, and the EU with other countries will have to negotiate it. 

Third, the fundraising effort by both country leaders and philanthropic organizations is yet to clarify its position on the supply chains dictated by the private pharmaceutical companies. The intensity of the global research effort is such that governments and companies are building production lines before they have actually found the product to produce. For example, Germany has begun its own human trials on a product with a small group of 12 participants. The United Kingdom has also started phase human trials for a vaccine last month, through the University of Oxford's Jenner Institute.

The funds raised will initiate cooperation between scientists and regulators, industry and governments, international organizations, foundations and healthcare professionals. However, one should not lose sight of the fact that this same cooperation between private pharmaceuticals and the research group will create an industrial complex leading to privatization of research and the product.

Lastly, with the demand for a vaccine so intense, there are increasing calls for 'human-challenge trials' to speed the process to earmark a vaccine. The human challenge trials are tests where the volunteers are injected with a potential vaccine and then deliberately exposed to the coronavirus. This approach involving exposing participants to a potentially deadly disease is ethically fraught. But in the debate over speed versus safety, the speedy delivery of results is winning, and the call for fundraiser also puts on the clock on this need for research delivery. 

The US's political absence, but the philanthropic presence 
The absence of the US from the conference has been noticeable, even though it has the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, many of which are now leading the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. The US did not provide an official explanation for its absence, but a senior official from the US President Donald Trump's administration said the US was already a "global leader in the COVID-19 foreign assistance." 

Many of the organizations, foundations and donors supporting the pledging conference are funded or managed by big corporates such as the Microsoft, Facebook or Amazon from the US. While the political leadership under Trump has recently clashed with the WHO, vowing to freeze the 400 million dollars funding to the organization, the vacuum has been filled by private players like Gates and Melinda Foundation along with London based Wellcome Trust. Thus it was not surprising to find private players from the US as key donors in the event. All the funds raised in the initiative will be channelled through international health agencies like the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the WHO. Hence even without political representation, the US will lead the big pockets pledging for the vaccine research. 

In the background, the US's absence could also be understood through its recently announced vaccine project of its own, called "Operation Warp Speed," which aims to speed up vaccine development by several months and have 300 million doses available at the earliest. Previously, the US approved the emergency use of the anti-viral drug Remdesivir, which has shown some initial promise as a treatment against the effects of the COVID-19 infections. The rush of the US administration to ease its lockdown and its decision to find the vaccine are political statements to the EU who has treaded cautiously in the crossfire among the US, WHO and China. 

In matters of global good, some countries are more equal than others 
With the call for the fundraiser the EU has taken an institutional lead while the whole of Europe makes peace with the EU recovery fund and normalize the divide within. However, in the search for the COVID-19 vaccine and the EU's lead call is a global good marred in geopolitics minus the voice of the developing countries. In a West driven initiative to find the vaccine, the need to find a voice for the unique realities of the Third World becomes important.

The cost of the branded generics are still unaffordable in the developing countries that in turn feeds the generic drug markets. With one more lead from the developed countries, the dependency on aid and medicines increases for the developing countries. That's why WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during the conference, "the ultimate measure of success will not be how fast we can develop tools," but rather "how equally we distribute them."
 

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