By Peter Loftus and Drew Hinshaw
Pharmaceutical companies are bracing for export bans on future
coronavirus vaccines and spreading production across different
continents, on early signs of a high-stakes geopolitical scramble
to secure supplies for a scientific breakthrough that could confer
enormous economic and political power.
The resulting picture is what public health experts call
"vaccine nationalism," as the international pursuit for a
desperately needed shot shifts into a contest of which world power
can immunize its population first. A coronavirus vaccine would be a
monumental prize for the first country able to manufacture it at
scale, a civilizational triumph comparable to the moon landing. It
would allow the winner to revive its economy months ahead of others
and then select which allies get shipments next, centering the
global recovery on its medical output.
Governments in Europe and Asia have, at times, sent conflicting
messages on how aggressively they will reserve any vaccine produced
on their soil. But most of the leading pharmaceutical companies
developing front-running candidates anticipate that when a vaccine
does prove effective, countries will block exports, just as many
did with surgical masks or experimental drugs. Rather than
concentrate production that could be trapped inside borders,
drugmakers such as Johnson & Johnson and Moderna Inc. are
preparing factories on different continents to produce in
"Everybody's protecting their own," said Chief Executive John
Chiminski of the New Jersey-based multinational pharmaceutical
Catalent Inc. His company provides some of the world's limited
capacity for a vaccine production step called sterile vial filling,
and is preparing its factories in Indiana, Wis., and Italy to
produce multiple potential vaccines. "All of a sudden, these are
The World Health Organization has asked for any future vaccine
to be swiftly exported first to hospital workers around the world,
then to all people in need, everywhere. "There should not be a
divide between the haves and the have-nots," Director-General
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters last month. Some
drugmakers say, left to them, they would prefer to see hospital
workers immunized first.
"Unless we immunize essentially the whole world, none of us will
be safe, " Merck & Co. Inc. Chief Executive Ken Frazier said in
an interview. His company announced two new vaccines in development
But there is no precedent for such a swift and global
immunization, and fundamental supplies run short, from medical
glass to ultracold freezers. Several candidates use novel
technology understood by only a small number of specialists.
European Union leaders, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates
Foundation, have helped raise $8 billion to overcome those hurdles.
Earlier this month, the European Commission hosted a global
videoconference, in which 43 heads of state and government dialed
in to work out the thorny details of how a vaccine might be
manufactured and supplied to billions of people in poor
Neither the U.S., India, nor Russia joined the event. Chinese
Premier Li Keqiang was slated to speak, until the schedule changed
a few hours beforehand. The Chinese ambassador who replaced him
offered few details in a short speech accusing Western nations of
playing a "blame game" around the coronavirus pandemic.
"When a country gets a vaccine it's going to be very interesting
to see what happens," said David Heymann, a distinguished fellow in
London's Chatham House Global Health program, and a former WHO
assistant director-general. "Most countries are going to be
politically obliged to make sure it goes to their own people if
it's being produced and manufactured in their country."
More than 100 different vaccines are in development, with at
least 10 currently being tested on humans. Five of those are in
China, whose President Xi Jinping has said any vaccine his country
designs will become a "global public good." At the same time, Wang
Hui, the party secretary of Sinopharm Group Co. Ltd., whose
subsidiaries are producing three of China's candidates, suggested
to state-run China Central Television that the firm may give first
rights to Chinese nationals, including medical staff and those
working or studying abroad.
British and American funding for local drugmakers has come with
similar stipulations. In India -- one of the world's largest
vaccine makers -- lobbyists with the local pharmaceutical industry
expect the government to curb exports so that Indians can access
any doses first, as authorities did with the experimental drug
On Monday, Maryland-based Novavax Inc. said it had begun
clinical trials of its own vaccine, the newest such candidate to
reach that stage. The company is hoping to manufacture it in
multiple markets -- on as many continents as possible, its chief
executive, Staley Erck, said in an interview. If all goes well, the
company could make up to 100 million doses by the end of the
"The question is, where does the first 100 million doses go?" he
said. The company is considering the possibility that President
Trump will invoke the Defense Production Act to reserve doses
produced in the U.S. for Americans, and is looking at how to
increase manufacturing outside the U.S. "The potential problem is
that borders close," Mr. Erck said.
In the U.S., the federal government has provided more than $2
billion to finance vaccine manufacturing by four drugmakers, all of
which remain months away, at best, from bringing a product to
market: Johnson & Johnson, Moderna Inc., AstraZeneca PLC and
Sanofi SA. Most of those have committed, either per the terms of
their funding, or separately, to manufacturing within the U.S.
Though some, such as Johnson & Johnson, are also simultaneously
pursuing production in Europe.
"We had to get in line first," said Rick Bright, the former
director of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development
Authority, testifying before congress last week, explaining why the
U.S. prefunded companies that would manufacture their
still-unproven vaccines within its borders. "That's what we
Barda is providing up to $483 million to Moderna to fund
development and preparations for mass production of its vaccine.
Moderna's chief executive, Stéphane Bancel, said in an interview
that the contract includes no specific requirement on supplies for
But Moderna is using some of the Barda funding to establish
manufacturing operations at a plant in New Hampshire operated by
Lonza Ltd., a Swiss contract manufacturer that Moderna has joined
with to expand vaccine production. The company will also separately
produce a vaccine at a plant in Switzerland.
Mr. Bancel said he has heard from government leaders around the
world who are "worried about allocation of the product."
"There will be people who will be really upset if they don't get
the vaccine," Mr. Bancel said. "We'll have to thread that needle
thoughtfully and carefully,"
Beyond the U.S., the British government has given at least $79
million toward a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford
University. British citizens would be first in line to get access
to that vaccine, with 30 million doses expected as soon as
Last week, the Trump administration said it would provide up to
$1.2 billion in grants to AstraZeneca to manufacture some 300
million doses for the U.S.
"Every vaccine manufacturer will feel obligations to the country
where it's based," said Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the
Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, an Oslo-based
nonprofit group that finances coronavirus vaccine projects,
including Novavax's candidate, to help immunize health-care workers
globally. It isn't just the U.S. that might steer vaccine
production to its own citizens, he said: "This is a global
--Jared Hopkins contributed to this article.
Write to Peter Loftus at firstname.lastname@example.org and
Drew Hinshaw at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 27, 2020 07:25 ET (11:25 GMT)
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