Global pressure on just a handful of companies producing COVID-19 vaccines was not the anticipated scenario for fall of 2021. But a series of unfortunate events — including the failure of some vaccine companies to create or up production and the surge of the Delta variant — have resulted what health equity advocates have long feared: unequal distribution of vaccines among rich and poor countries.
Pfizer (PFE) CEO Albert Bourla told Yahoo Finance the company realized the need and more than doubled its projected output for 2021 as a result.
"We changed, dramatically, our strategy. We had invested to produce 1.3 billion doses for 2021, when we realized the situation, we put way more investments into the system and we were able to raise the volumes to 3 billion for this year, and 4 billion for next year," Bourla said.
The company is also working on a possible treatment for the novel coronavirus. "I keep my fingers crossed that the studies will be positive, and I hope we'll be able to know if the studies are positive before the end of the year," he said.
Pfizer was the first company to receive authorization as well as full approval for adults in the U.S. for its COVID-19 vaccine. It also has a booster dose authorized for certain segments of the population. This action has been criticized by some as doses that are being taken away from the poorer global populations.
The company, along with rival Moderna (MRNA), has come under increased pressure by global advocacy groups to produce and donate more doses to the world instead of focusing on boosters in rich countries.
The U.S. has promised more than 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines globally, of which about 200 million have been shipped to-date. But experts say more doses are needed.
Pfizer announced plans to open a manufacturing hub with South Africa's Biovac Institute and anticipates it will be operational by early next year. Until then, donating more doses from the U.S. — which is already administering third doses domestically — remains a short-term solution.
Other countries have also asked to be allowed to donate their unused doses, and recent reports suggest the contract with the company was a barrier.
Bourla told Yahoo Finance that within two days of receiving such a request, Pfizer has been able to work with the country to allow sharing of doses.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration supports waiving intellectually property (IP) rights, a proposal sent by India and South Africa to the World Trade Organization, to encourage the transfer of technology to middle- and lower-income countries to increase global capacity. Pfizer has maintained that there isn't enough skilled labor in these countries, and in some cases the internal infrastructure in the country is a barrier to equitable distribution.
In a recent open letter, Bourla noted that waiving IP would also create unhelpful competition for raw materials.
"The proposed waiver for COVID-19 vaccines, threatens to disrupt the flow of raw materials. It will unleash a scramble for the critical inputs we require in order to make a safe and effective vaccine. Entities with little or no experience in manufacturing vaccines are likely to chase the very raw materials we require to scale our production, putting the safety and security of all at risk," Bourla said.
On Monday, Bourla added that rival Moderna had already offered not to enforce its patent, and couldn't find any takers — highlighting the point that there is, in fact, little additional capacity out there.
Pfizer is now awaiting authorization of its vaccine for kids aged 5-11. A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel is set to meet and discuss the data this week, with an anticipated Centers for Disease Control green light in early November.
The vaccine proved 90.7% effective with no concerning side effects reported, according to the data from the company.
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