[Vaccine-manufacturing] The Economist: American export controls threaten to hinder global vaccine production

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Sun Apr 18 03:25:13 PDT 2021


A vaxxing problem
American export controls threaten to hinder global vaccine production

The world’s biggest vaccine-maker says it will feel the pinch in a month

Science & technology
Apr 17th 2021

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LAST WEEK the billionth dose of covid-19 vaccine was produced. It is a sign
of how greatly manufacturing capacity has expanded over the past six months
that the next billion doses could be produced by May 27th, according to
Airfinity, an analytics firm (see chart). Yet this ambition is at risk from
American export controls on raw materials and equipment. Production lines
in India, making at least 160m doses of covid vaccine a month, will come to
a halt in the coming weeks unless America supplies 37 critical items.

On April 16th, Adar Poonawalla, the chief executive of the Serum Institute
of India (SII), the world’s biggest vaccine-maker, put out a tweet begging
President Joe Biden to “lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the
US...Your administration has the details”. Suresh Jadhav, SII’s executive
director, says “we are absolutely concerned,” and that in the next four to
six weeks the production of two vaccines will be affected: AstraZeneca’s,
of which SII makes 100m doses a month, and Novavax’s, of which it expects
to make 60m-70m doses a month. SII says it first alerted the American
government to the impending problem two months ago.

That was shortly after the Biden administration announced, on February 5th,
plans to use the Defence Production Act (DPA)—legislation that grants the
president broad industrial-mobilisation powers—to bolster vaccine-making.
This legislation has helped American pharmaceutical companies to secure raw
materials and equipment needed to make more vaccines. But American firms
that supply products essential to vaccine production say the DPA hinders
their ability to export them. They must seek permission before exporting
goods, which requires time and paperwork, and if America’s government
decides they need the goods, firms may be barred from exporting them at
all. Some are also concerned about pharma companies outside of America
stockpiling goods because of concerns about delays caused by American
export controls. Together, export controls and stockpiling risk gumming up
the global supply chain.

Vaccine production requires an array of special materials, including
plastic tubing, raw goods, filters and even paper. Because all these items
have to be specially approved by regulators to be used in medicine
production, finding substitutes quickly can be impossible.

SII is not the only company to be concerned. Export controls also affect
European vaccine producers, who need special bags from America in which to
make their products. At a vaccine supply-chain meeting in early March, one
European pharmaceutical company complained of 66-week delivery times for
the supply of bags, commenting that it would be quicker to make a steel
container to manufacture them in.

On March 24th, Micheál Martin, Ireland’s prime minister, warned that export
bans (and not just from America) would undermine global vaccine production,
and noted that the Pfizer vaccine involves 280 components from 86 suppliers
in 19 countries. Richard Hatchett, head of the Coalition for Epidemic
Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global partnership to develop vaccines,
says his organisation is “extremely concerned about constraints on global
supply chains”.

CEPI is part of a new task force working with industry on this problem, and
has also appealed to the World Trade Organisation for support. Its new
head, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, held a high-level meeting this week, which
concluded that stronger supply chains were critical to addressing global
vaccine inequity.

If all goes swimmingly, the world could produce as many as 14bn doses of
vaccine this year. But if vaccines and raw materials do not arrive where
and when needed, production will fall grievously short of that estimate.
Shortfalls in India will hinder its own vaccination programme, which is
ramping up amidst an alarming second wave of infections—the country is
recording more than 1,000 deaths per day from covid-19. And since India has
banned the export of finished vaccines while it serves domestic needs, Mr
Jadhav says that SII cannot fulfill its commitments to Covax, a global
vaccine-sharing programme, and cannot deliver supplies to Europe and

At a time when many American states have a surplus of vaccines, with as
many as one in three doses going unused, American export restrictions are
not just galling. They may soon derail the plan to vaccinate the world.

Thiru Balasubramaniam
Geneva Representative
Knowledge Ecology International
41 22 791 6727
thiru at keionline.org

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