An international coalition aiming to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic needs US$28 billion, a bargain price for stopping the damage done by a virus that has run rampant for the past year, a senior UN World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Tuesday.
“This is the best deal in town. No question. This will pay itself off within 36 hours, once we get international travel and trade mobility moving again,” said Dr Bruce Aylward, Senior Adviser to the WHO Director-General and lead for the coalition, known as ACT Accelerator.
ACT Accelerator, or the “Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator” in full, is the UN-launched group of countries and organizations overseeing the development, production and equitable distribution of affordable COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.
The group has three big targets, Dr Aylward said: two billion doses of vaccines at least by the end of 2021, 500 million new rapid diagnostics for low and middle-income countries, and 250 million therapeutic tests.
“The accelerator is all about an integrated end-to-end solution to the pandemic,” Dr Aylward told a regular UN briefing of journalists in Geneva.
Monday saw a meeting of the ACT Accelerator Facilitation Council, a body tasked with mulling the political and financial difficulties that will need to be overcome, Dr Aylward said.
A UN statement said the meeting received welcome news of a $255 million contribution from Canada, but it plans to meet again in early February, to work out how to fill the funding gap.
Raising $28 billion was a real challenge in the current fiscal environment, but it made sense to tackle the problem head-on, Dr Aylward said.
“Frankly, if we don’t do this in a coordinated way, it is going to cost more, be slower and this (pandemic) is just going to drag out longer,” he said. “Right now, financing is what stands between us and getting out of this pandemic as rapidly as possible. It’s as simple as that.”
The cost was larger than the total annual amount of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) for health worldwide, which comes to around $26 billion. But it would be a mistake to raid ODA to finance ACT Accelerator, he said, because it would deprive vital funds from other areas, such as malaria, HIV and antenatal care.
Countries and donor organizations were completely behind the rationale for ACT Accelerator, he said, and although they would like to see a lower price tag, they recognised that it would cost a sizeable amount to not just develop and produce but also deliver the products needed to defeat the pandemic.
The statement said the ACT Accelerator team was working 20-hour days and looking at all possible financing instruments, including special purpose vehicles, concessional loans, the catastrophic bonds, and social bonds.
“There’s also a very hard look at stimulus financing. G20 countries have put about $12 trillion into their economies, about half of that almost in cash, to try and address the consequences of COVID-19, so part of the argument that we’re making as well is we need to find a way to unlock a chunk of the stimulus financing to actually deal with the root cause,” said the top adviser.
“Because if we can get these vaccines out, if we get these therapeutics out, get the diagnostics out at this kind of scale, we can get the global economy moving again.”
Dr Aylward sounded a note of warning about the level of attention given to the development of vaccines for COVID-19, saying it was absolutely essential to continue to focus on diagnostics and therapeutics as well since they were the key to saving lives, preventing severe mortality and freeing up intensive care units, as well as ending the extraordinary economic disruption wrought by the pandemic.
Access to therapeutics was the area where there was the greatest risk of inequity between rich and poor countries, Dr Aylward said, adding that Canada deserved praise for funding across the whole pipeline and not just concentrating on vaccines.