International science institutions are stepping up to the challenge of COVID-19. Now’s the time to start planning for a global public goods approach to vaccine distribution.
It is very likely that the COVID-19 crisis will lead to a partial deglobalization of the world economy, at least in the short and medium term. Corporations are already beginning to simplify their global supply chains, reducing their dependence on international outsourcing and relocating activities back home.
Exports, foreign direct investments, and international mobility of human capital will fall, although how sustained this drop will be depends on the duration of the crisis and the recovery. On the other hand, protectionist and nationalistic policies will gain support. Many countries are closing borders unilaterally, hoarding scarce medical equipment such as ventilators and masks, taking control of national producers, and introducing barriers to exports.
In the sphere of science and technology, however, the opposite may be true. International collaboration in research and innovation has greatly intensified in the span of just a few months. The rapid mobilization of so many actors across the world to collaboratively develop and test new therapies and vaccines has been remarkable. Unprecedented international knowledge creation efforts are engaging multiple stakeholders such as hospitals, private companies, research institutes, government at various levels, and civil society.
The World Health Organization has acted as a hub to centralize and share information on data and research results. WHO has prescribed guidelines for national governments to test and trace COVID-19 cases, and launched innovative initiatives to accelerate the development of therapies and vaccines through international collaboration. Notably, the Solidarity trial collects data from multiple hospitals in over 90 countries that enroll their patients through the WHO website, following simplified procedures to enable even overloaded hospitals to participate. The website then randomly assigns patients to a trial drug among the four currently being tested (including hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir, which had already been undergoing tests for use in treating Ebola and SARS), allowing reliable comparisons of large-scale samples by an independent scientific board. According to WHO, the trial can reduce the time necessary to design and conduct clinical trials by 80%.
Complementing WHO, an array of specialized global research partnerships are also playing an important role in coordinating global efforts. These include:
- The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), an international alliance to finance and coordinate the development of vaccines for emerging infectious diseases, cofounded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and a consortium of nations.
- The Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness (GloPID-R), a network of research funding organizations from various countries to facilitate research on infectious diseases with pandemic potential.
- The International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium (ISARIC), a global federation of clinical research networks to provide a coordinated research response to outbreak-prone infectious diseases.
- The Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), a public-private partnership between the European Commission and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, to speed up the development of urgent medical treatments.
- The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), a public-private partnership involving various multilateral organizations, philanthropies, pharmaceutical firms, and national governments, focusing on creating equal access to vaccines for children in developing countries.