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Public Citizen Partners with Global Health Experts in the Fight for Vaccine Justice

Public Citizen News / May-June 2024

By Liza Barrie

One of the world’s great failures during the Covid pandemic was providing equal access to vaccines to developing countries. The failure to share vaccines and the technology to make vaccines cost as many as 1 million lives in poor countries.

Public Citizen is working hard to make sure that failure is never repeated, and is making important progress.

In early April, Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines team hosted a meeting with global health experts, including Petro Terblanche, CEO of Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, and Esteban Burrone, head of policy and strategy at the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP). The event highlighted Public Citizen’s crucial support for these organizations and its ongoing impact in the global fight for treatment and vaccine equity.

As the discussions got underway, Terblanche couldn’t contain her excitement at the previous night’s events at the World Vaccine Congress. Afrigen and the WHO-backed mRNA Technology Transfer Program that it hosts were honored with the Best Vaccine Technology Platform Award, outshining major pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline. Praised for its potential to revolutionize vaccine manufacturing and broaden global access, the end-to-end mRNA platform located at Afrigen in South Africa was recognized as offering “the greatest promise to develop novel vaccines and provide transformative technology that can revolutionize vaccine manufacturing and address diseases like cancer and other chronic conditions.” 

Afrigen and MPP, headquartered in Switzerland, are central to WHO’s groundbreaking program. This initiative is empowering scientists and vaccine producers from 15 low- and middle-income countries, including six in Africa, with the knowledge and skills to produce their own mRNA vaccines. It’s a decisive response to the stark disparities in vaccine access highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affected the Global South and contributed to over a million needless deaths. Public Citizen has been a cornerstone in advocating for and amplifying the program from its inception, inspiring governmental and civil society support, strategic advocacy, and high-profile media engagement. 

Terblanche shared how she began working with Public Citizen’s access to medicines director, Peter Maybarduk, in 2021 due to his role on the Medicines Patent Pool governance board. During a time when skepticism from governments and academia threatened to derail the program, she recounted the overwhelming support from civil society. “On one of the calls, we had 102 civil society organizations,” she described, reflecting on a crucial video conference organized by Maybarduk that highlighted the barriers pharmaceutical companies were erecting to the mRNA Tech Transfer initiative. 

Esteban Burrone outlined MPP’s integral role in collaborating with Afrigen and a range of other partners to build an ecosystem to meet public health needs in Africa and beyond. It includes assessing the technological capacities of the 15 manufacturers and what further support they need in terms of equipment, facilities, and other resources. This detailed oversight ensures that the technology transfer not only happens but is also sustainable and tailored to the unique needs of each partner country. 

The Medicines Patent Pool was founded in 2010 to facilitate affordable access to new health technologies, and has become the global leader in negotiating voluntary licensing agreements for pharmaceutical patents. Through these agreements, MPP has enabled over 21 million people worldwide to access affordable, effective HIV treatment regimens for less than $45 per patient per year, significantly expanding the availability of essential HIV medications, particularly in the Global South, and extending countless lives.

Public Citizen’s advocacy and campaigning for countries to speed generic competition and work around patent barriers complements MPP’s voluntary licensing efforts. Colombia’s recent announcement of its first-ever compulsory license to enhance access to generic versions of the key HIV medicine dolutegravir – a government-granted license without permission from the patent owner ViiV Healthcare – marks a significant victory for Public Citizen, which strongly supported the licensing push, and sets a promising example for countries worldwide.

Another priority for Public Citizen’s access to medicines team has been influencing the text of the pandemic accord that UN member states are racing to finalize ahead of the World Health Assembly in May.  After a two-year effort to secure an agreement to ensure the world is better prepared for future pandemics, Public Citizen continues to push for provisions to prevent the extreme inequity in access to pandemic-related medical tools (including vaccines, tests and treatments), that contributed to 15 million estimated deaths and $14 trillion in global economic loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through written and oral comments, Public Citizen lobbied the Biden administration to support more robust measures for equity and access in the accord, including global access to medical tools developed with public funds. It organized a sign-on letter from over 100 religious leaders globally urging leaders of the WHO to secure equity commitments that protect all populations everywhere from future pandemics, as well as countless calls with key stakeholders—journalists, activists, government representatives, and more—to share information and strategize on how to influence the most contentious elements of the draft text. The main disputes revolve around access and equity: access to pathogens detected within countries; access to pandemic-fighting products such as vaccines produced from that knowledge; and equitable distribution of not only pandemic tests, treatments, and vaccines but the means to produce them. 

Public Citizen has been committed to addressing both the moral and practical imperatives of increasing vaccine production in Africa through its support for WHO’s mRNA Technology Transfer Program and related work with Afrigen and MPP and through its role as vice chair of the civil society steering committee for Gavi, the vaccine alliance. Gavi currently purchases about half of the vaccine doses used in Africa. In December, Gavi’s board approved establishing the African Vaccine Manufacturing Accelerator (AVMA), a new financing instrument that will make up to US$1 billion available to support vaccine manufacturing on the continent. Through her leadership role on Gavi’s civil society steering committee, Public Citizen’s campaign director for global vaccines access, Liza Barrie, led extensive civil society consultations with Gavi during the AVMA design phase throughout 2023 that Gavi leaders say significantly influenced the final plan that will be formally launched in Paris in June. Barrie mobilized top experts from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the University of Cape Town, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, and other groups to review Gavi’s proposals, challenge assumptions, and offer alternative approaches to many of the proposal’s key elements.