Riding high on the unprecedented success of its COVID-19 vaccine, Pfizer said on Wednesday that it will make 23 of its medicines—many of them patented—available to 45 low-income countries at a not-for-profit price.
Pfizer revealed the initiative, dubbed “An Accord for a Healthier World,” during the World Economic Forum (WEF) this week in Davos, Switzerland. It is designed to “reduce the health inequities that exist between many low-income countries and the rest of the world,” Pfizer said.
During the coronavirus pandemic, those inequities became painfully apparent as wealthy countries were the first to be supplied with products to combat the disease.
As the company profiting most from the pandemic—thanks to record-shattering sales of its Comirnaty vaccine—Pfizer drew sharp criticism for the uneven distribution of shots and for initially resisting calls to share its intellectual property rights. In a report released during the WEF, Oxfam said Pfizer has sold the most vaccines in the world but has delivered the least to low-income countries, as a proportion of total deliveries.
Under the new program, Pfizer will supply Comirnaty to these countries, as well as its COVID-19 oral antiviral Paxlovid. The initiative is designed to reach 1.2 billion people living in the 45 countries. Pfizer urged other companies to join the effort.
Speaking on CNBC on Wednesday morning, Pfizer's CEO said the company first discussed the initiative back in 2019.
“Right now, it’s about making a dream happen,” Bourla said. “When I took over, my entire leadership team made some plans for the next five years. One of them was by year 2023, we would reduce by 50% the number of people on the planet who cannot afford our medicines.”
Five African nations—Ghana, Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda—have already signed on. With the help of Pfizer, they are exploring other barriers to access including supply chain management and infrastructure improvements, as well as healthcare professional education and training. Lessons learned from these countries will help expedite the rollouts in other nations, Pfizer said.
The Accord will include 27 low-income countries and 18 others classified as lower-middle-income that have graduated from the low-income ranks over the last 10 years.
The program will place a particular emphasis on treating diseases that disproportionately impact low-income countries, Pfizer said.
To that end, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will provide funding to develop vaccines for Group B Streptococcus, one of the leading causes of stillbirth and newborn death in poor countries. The foundation also is supporting Pfizer’s development of a Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) vaccine, which claims the lives of many children. leading killer of children around the world.
“Everyone, no matter where they live, should have the same access to innovative, life-saving drugs and vaccines,” Bill Gates said in Pfizer’s announcement. “Pfizer is setting an example for other companies to follow.”
Last year, Pfizer and Merck joined the United Nations-backed Medicines Patent Pool, agreeing to share the intellectual property on their respective COVID-19 oral antiviral treatments to manufacturers around the world.
Meanwhile, some efforts by vaccine makers to license the technology to produce COVID shots around the world have struggled to reap dividends. Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that Johnson & Johnson's manufacturing partner in South Africa, Aspen, had zero orders for shots despite producing them for two months.
In addition to discussing the Accord, Bourla said that the world will have to contend with "constant waves" of COVID-19 largely because of what he called "complacency."
“I feel when I discuss (COVID) with my friends, people are ready to compromise and lower the bar," Bourla told the Financial Times. "Maybe we can accept a few more old people dying, than have to work with a mask."