Vaccine manufacturers are being urged by leading health experts to pledge that they will not seek to profit from private sales of treatments amid mounting focus on the rollout of the government’s vaccination program.
With the need for viable vaccines intensifying after the abandonment of the Queensland University/CSL trials, an Australian university academic has pleaded with companies to join AstraZeneca in committing to “fair and equitable access” to treatments and not selling vaccines privately so people can jump the queue for a jab.
Australia has millions of doses of vaccines on order from three companies – AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech and Novavax – but none have been approved yet by Australia’s medical regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
The Pfizer/BioNTech treatment, of which 10m doses have been ordered by the Australian government, is seen as the most likely to be the first to be granted approval. It has been approved by regulators in the UK and has already been administered to thousands of people as the country’s biggest ever vaccination program began this week. The treatment has also been given the go-ahead in Canada and Bahrain.
If the TGA gives the green light, which is expected in the early part of next year, vaccinations will be rolled out through the existing federal immunisation infrastructure according to need, with vulnerable, older people first, followed by health and aged care workers, the federal health has said.
“The Australian government is aiming to have as many people vaccinated as possible in 2021,” the department’s website says. “Identified priority groups will get the first available doses, provided they are proven safe and effective, but more people will have access to a vaccine as more doses become available throughout 2021.”
Despite the stated aim of the government program, Barbara Mintzes, associate professor at the University of Sydney Charles Perkins centre and school of pharmacy, expressed concern that private sales “could divert much-needed vaccine stock from those at greatest need”.
She pointed to recent comments by Prof John Skerritt, the head of the TGA, that manufacturers would be able to sell vaccines privately because “we live in a free market economy”.
“There’s nothing stopping companies as long as they have the TGA approval to put that vaccine on the market in Australia,” Skerritt said.
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Mintzes said there were compelling reasons why that should not be allowed to happen, including the need to ensure those who need them most receive them first, that the two-stage vaccinations are carried out correctly and that central oversight of all vaccinations is maintained.
“You have a rollout of a universally available vaccine but then at the same time people can pay – they’re really jumping a queue,” she said. “There might be some circumstances where a person needs to be vaccinated before their specific population group. But those circumstances shouldn’t be giving wealthier people the ability to pay for something privately.
“This is a public health crisis and it should be seen as a global problem, not a situation where one country can vaccinate its citizens and assume no problem with other parts of the world.”
AstraZeneca has vowed not to profit from its treatment, of which Australia has now upped its order to 53.8m doses after the CSL abandonment. Pfizer and Novavax have yet to make a similar public commitment.
Mintzes said: “I would say to drug companies: is your company willing to make a similar pledge not to derive profit from the vaccine? And how will you ensure timely and equitable access in lower and middle-income countries?”
A spokesperson for Pfizer Australia said that if its treatment was approved by the TGA, it would be supplied “through a robust process, consistent with the agreement we’ve entered with the Australian government. Pfizer will continue to work closely with the government to support their vaccine implementation plans. Decisions on further access have not been made.”
Novavax, a small American company based in Maryland, is planning to manufacture 2bn doses of its treatment, which is still in phase 3 trials. The Australian government has upped its order of Novavax doses to 50m.
Novavax did not comment on whether it would commit to a purely equitable rollout of its vaccine but it is believed the company, which specialises in developing vaccines, unlike its much bigger drug-making rivals, is focused on meeting public health needs before other concerns.
In the UK, the deputy chief medical officer has ruled out any suggestion that wealthy people will be able to jump the queue by paying for the treatment. And in Canada, where the Pfizer vaccine will be made available in January, provinces and territories are expected to follow federal health advice that the vaccine should be rolled out according to need.
The TGA was contacted for comment.