A global alliance of world leaders is expected to pledge to raise an initial $8.2bn (£6.5bn) at a virtual summit on Monday to research and equitably distribute vaccines and therapeutics to help tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
It is hoped national research efforts will be streamlined so that vaccines are manufactured quickly for distribution to poorer countries, and not just for the benefit of the wealthy economies that produce them.
National prestige and huge profits are potentially at stake for the countries and firms that win the race for a vaccine that can take the world’s economies out of lockdown, but there is a risk of uncoordinated duplication of research efforts slowing the process and adding to the cost.
Monday’s fundraising summit comes after the concept was launched at a previous meeting on 24 April. Neither China nor the US attended the hastily assembled earlier summit, which also included the World Health Organization.
The US president, Donald Trump, who is at loggerheads with the WHO and China over what he has called a conspiracy to cover up the origin of the virus, had been urged to support the summit. But optimism that the US might relent and join the initiative had waned by Monday morning.
Melinda Gates, a critic of the absence of US leadership on global health, has warned: “If there is Covid anywhere, there is Covid everywhere. If vaccinations are not distributed everywhere, relapses can occur everywhere”.
The UK strongly supports the project and attended the 24 April event. Its prime minister Boris Johnson will tell the conference: “The more we pull together and share our expertise, the faster our scientists will succeed. The race to discover the vaccine to defeat this virus is not a competition between countries, but the most urgent shared endeavour of our lifetimes. It’s humanity against the virus - we are in this together, and together we will prevail.”
The initiative is designed to broaden the work of an existing organisation, set up in 2017 in the wake of the Ebola outbreak, known as the Global Coalition on Epidemic Preparedness Innovations focused on vaccine research. The new body will have a remit to include testing and therapies for those with the disease.
The leaders hope to follow the model of the Global Vaccine and Immunisation Alliance (Gavi), which has negotiated with companies that develop vaccines for 20 years, lowering the price by guaranteeing long-term markets and large volumes. Gavi has helped fund the immunisation of 20 million children worldwide.
A global pandemic board, operating independently, but in partnership with the World Health Organization, will have the support of the G20 group of countries. Separate subgroups will be set up to coordinate work on vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. Sir Andrew Whitty, the former chief executive officer of GlaxoSmithKline, has agreed to be a special envoy for the group.
The aim is to funnel research into five or six vaccines before moving towards mass manufacturing of the two that show the most promise. The WHO estimates as many as 89 vaccines are in development globally, including seven in clinical evaluation and some therapeutics in clinical trials. To hasten the process, the group aims to subsidise manufacture of drugs before final clinical trials are complete. The final costs could be as high as $40bn.
The launch meeting last week agreed on the principles of Covid therapeutics research sharing and equitable distribution.
A joint call for action that also backs the role of the WHO has been signed by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, French president, Emmanuel Macron, Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, Norwegian prime minister, Erna Solberg, European council, president Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European commission. All three EU national leaders have experienced a surge in popularity since the crisis started, but now face the difficulty of managing an easing of the lockdown without a ready vaccine.
Their pre-summit joint statement says the aim is to “bring together the world’s best – and most prepared – minds to find the vaccines, treatments and therapies we need to make our world healthy again, while strengthening the health systems that will make them available for all, with a particular attention to Africa.”