Amid the human and economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, partnerships have emerged as a powerful tool to develop and scale up COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines.
Thanks to the combined efforts of scientists, private sector companies, international institutions, donors and governments, COVID-19 diagnostics, treatment, and vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus have been developed, tested and produced for roll-out in record time.
At a recent World Bank knowledge event, BioNTech co-founders, Dr. Ozlem Tureci and Dr. Ugur Sahin, discussed how a strategic partnership enabled them to develop a highly effective vaccine against COVID-19, using innovative mRNA technology. Building on years of research on immunity, BioNTech launched its “Lightspeed project” in January 2020, shortly after the genome sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was shared as a public good.
The private sector has a vital role to play in the fight against COVID-19 and other health threats
Vaccine research and development is a daunting process, fraught with financial risk and uncertainty.
To achieve their objective and mitigate the risks, the BioNTech founders teamed up with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which helped them develop the vaccine, undertake large-scale clinical trials to test its effectiveness and safety, and scale up production. As a result of their successful collaboration, their vaccine – the first-ever nucleic acid vaccine approved– also became the first COVID-19 vaccine to obtain World Health Organization Emergency Use Listing (EUL), moving from lab to approval in only 11 months.
“When we started this project, we did not know if this vaccine would work at all.” – Dr. Ugur Sahin, co-Founder BioNTech
Following the BioNTech/Pfizer breakthrough, several other vaccines have been approved or reached Phase 3 trial.
Delivering vaccines is as challenging as developing vaccines – The value-add of COVID-19 vaccines hinges on efficacy, coverage, and fair access.
Despite the unprecedented success in vaccine development, we still face many hurdles in ensuring fair access and delivering vaccines to those who need it the most. Access for low- and middle-income countries also remains a major concern as most vaccine supplies have been reserved by advanced countries, with very little available for developing countries.
Global cooperation is critical to ensure fair access to vaccines
, which includes the COVAX vaccine pillar, to help low- and middle-income countries get access to vaccines. BioNTech’s involvement in the COVAX program demonstrates how private sector companies can team up with global institutions to ensure greater access and equitable distribution of life-saving vaccines.
Many low- and middle-income countries grapple with issues of transportation, storage and local delivery as well as vaccine procurement. The World Bank and its partners worked with governments to assess their countries’ readiness to roll out COVID-19 vaccination before the first vaccine were even available, completing assessments in more than 140 countries to date.
In addition, the Bank has committed US$ 12 billion in financing for developing countries to purchase and deploy COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments and strengthen countries’ health and vaccination systems. So far, four projects—in Cabo Verde, Lebanon, Mongolia and Tajikistan—have been approved and 40 others are under preparation.
Collaboration leads to innovative solutions
“With the complexity of what we're facing, the collaboration and the partnership across disciplines, across fields, across sectors, and across countries is an important lesson,” says Dr. Ozlem Tureci. Cross-sector collaboration also extends to vaccine manufacturing and distribution, leading to innovative solutions aimed at overcoming supply, demand and delivery bottlenecks.
These include efforts to make vaccine more suitable for conditions in low- and middle-income countries where ultra-cold chain is not available as well as innovations in manufacturing, dosage, climate-smart storage solutions, and even partnerships. One such example is IFC’s US$4 billion Global Health Platform, which specifically targets improvements in manufacturing and delivery systems in developing countries to support vaccine roll-out.
Beyond production and delivery hurdles, lack of training, mis- and dis-information coupled with vaccine hesitancy could still hamper the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines. World Bank financing will help low- and middle-income countries to address these stumbling blocks and strengthen their delivery systems for COVID-19 vaccines.
Gearing up for a long campaign against COVID-19
A year into the pandemic, as new variants of the virus emerge, it is evident that COVID-19 will continue to threaten lives and development gains unless all vulnerable people have access to vaccines, treatments, oxygen and diagnostic tools to control and combat the disease.
Building on the new vaccines, global collaboration and constructive partnerships across sectors and borders will have to continue for years to ensure that no one is left behind.
Recent epidemics have demonstrated that when it comes to infectious diseases, we are only as strong as the weakest link. “What is clear is that this virus will stay with us for a long time and it is not only a temporary problem of 2021 and 2022,” says Dr. Sahin. “This is a challenge for the upcoming 10 years."