Recent estimates in August 2021, showed that currently, the global pandemic will cost the world at least $5.6 trillion and that does not factor in the impact on societies of adverse health outcomes or continued loss of life for the global population of 7.9 billion people.

The role of vaccines and medicines for Covid-19 will therefore be a vital tool to help the world overcome Covid-19, just as vaccines and medicines have been used to assist and overcome other pandemics and epidemics in the past.

Despite what some commentators would have us believe, vaccine and medicines development and manufacture is a high-risk and high-cost activity usually left to the industry itself to fund and undertake. Why is that? Well let’s look at the following facts:

Chance of developing a successful medicine or vaccine: 1 in 6,000-10,000; usual timeline for medicine and vaccine development: 10-20 years; average cost for medicine and vaccine development: $2-4 billion; failure rate at last stage of development process: 50 per cent; and 70-80 quality assurance steps in vaccine production, failure of any of these and the vaccine batch is discarded.

Basically, you would have a better chance of flipping a coin and having it land on its edge than of successfully developing a medicine or vaccine. On top of that, it takes up to two decades to get that medicine or vaccine successfully developed. Putting this simply, medicine and vaccine development is a “mugs game” and it turns out is as complex as, but more expensive than “rocket science”.

That the world currently has eight different safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines, developed and manufactured in just over one year; the biopharmaceutical sector has manufactured and distributed 6.1 billion doses of those COVID-19 vaccines to date; on current projected production rates, there will have been sufficient doses produced (12.2 billion) to vaccinate the world’s population by the end of 2021, i.e. attain global vaccine equity; is nothing short of miraculous and is a testament to human spirit and endeavour,as well as biopharmaceutical innovation.

How did this all happen? The simple answer is unprecedented collaboration -on a range and a scale that no-one has seen before in the history of biopharmaceutical research and development.

Aside from collaboration within the sector, there have been over 230 Covid-19 vaccine collaborative manufacturing arrangements generated. A number of governments internationally were and are collaborating with the sector. Some of that has been through non-financial means such as enhanced, collaborative regulatory processes, as well as financial support to some, but not all, biopharmaceutical companies to de-risk the development processes.

It is however, too early for anyone to be saying who paid for the lion’s share of the Covid-19 vaccine and medicines development. Let’s not forget there are still more than 290 vaccines and 600 medicines in development. My bet would be that the industry will be paying for the majority of this, based on historic trends.

Over the past 40 years, the biopharmaceutical sector has invested $1.5 trillion in research and development of medicines and vaccines. In comparison, most government funding goes on more basic research – not on applied research leading to products. Case in point, in the US 64 per cent of all applied biomedical R&D funding comes from the industry, while just 22 per cent comes from the federal government.

To say that governments fund most of the medicines and vaccines research and development is just not true. It is generally, companies and their shareholders who take the risks and rewards – not governments.

The issue of who owns intellectual property (IP) also comes down to who paid for most of the development of any product – be it a Covid-19 vaccine or something else. However, thevaccine IP debate is also likely to be a moot point, as on current projections, there will be enough vaccines produced globally to vaccinate the entire world by the end of 2021.

That is not to say that the world is there yet regarding Covid-19 vaccination

To truly achieve vaccine equity will require countries to actively collaborate with the sector globally in five areas: Step up dose sharing through initiatives such as COVAX; continue to optimise the production of vaccines through collaboration and sharing of raw materials; call out trade barriers to be eliminated to ensure ease of movement of raw materials and vaccines throughout the world; support country readiness for ease of distribution throughout populations; and drive further innovation through information sharing and continued research for future protection against Covid-19.

It is likely that Covid-19 and its impacts both societal and economic will continue to challenge the world. However through continued public and private sector collaboration rather than alienation and finger-pointing, it seems inevitable that the world will prevail. No-one should lose sight of that.

• Dr Graeme Jarvis is chief executive of Medicines New Zealand, the industry association representing research-based biopharmaceutical companies operating in New Zealand. It advocates for the benefits of modern medicines as part of a high-quality public health system, and does not fund any patient groups or government entities.

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