The U.S. government is facing pressure to do more to force vaccine manufacturers to share their COVID-19 vaccine formulas with the world to help boost global production and vaccination rates, especially in low and middle income countries.
The Biden administration has backed the idea of waiving intellectual property rights, but has faced stark pushback from the manufacturers.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, told Yahoo Finance he believes the idea of increasing manufacturing abroad is going to be far more time-consuming than simply relying on the companies' existing production.
"The main way to increase manufacturing of vaccines, right now, is in the facilities that are already doing this. It takes months, sometimes years, to establish brand new vaccine manufacturing facilities and get them actually credentialed to be sure they're safe," Collins said.
"If we want to see the billions of doses that are needed as quickly as possible, we ought to do everything possible to ramp up the production in the companies that are already doing this. That's certainly something the U.S. government is investing in in a big way," he added.
Collins reiterated a point President Joe Biden and the White House COVID-19 Response Team have often made, that the U.S. has contributed more doses to the world already than any other country.
That is in part due to the faltering of the world's largest vaccine producer, the Serum Institute of India, which pivoted to domestic distribution of doses as the Delta variant surged in India in March. The shift reduced its contribution to the COVAX facility, spearheaded by the World Health Organization, that would have been key in equitable access for low- and middle-income countries.
It's why more emphasis has been placed in recent months on sharing intellectual property and standing up more global manufacturing sites.
"I would like to see a lot more vaccine manufacturing capability in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa," Collins said.
But, he added, it will not provide the scale of production that is needed in the next several months to help end the pandemic.
Dr. David Kessler, former FDA Commissioner and current White House COVID-19 Response Leader, recently told a Yale University panel that the federal government has been in serious talks with Moderna to do more.
"We expect that Moderna will step up as a company," Kessler said, noting that the company still has to build up its capacity.
Kessler also noted that negotiations with Moderna were "anything but 'light touch', I assure you."
In response, Moderna, once a small-cap biotech with zero products, has said it is making good on all its promises including to contribute to low- and middle-income countries.
"A year ago, we had the ambitious goal of producing up to 1 billion doses at our own facility, supplemented by partnerships. We had a lot to prove to ourselves and others, and few might have predicted how far we have come today. But we recognize that our work is not done," CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a recent letter.
But the companies have both announced plans for manufacturing in Africa. Pfizer announced in July it would collaborate with the Biovac Institute in South Africa, starting at the end of 2021.
Collins said that it's something that will "not provide the immediate solution we'd love to have in the next few months."
By then, Collins will be out of his post as head of NIH.
Collins announced he is leaving by the end of the year, leaving behind a more than decade-long legacy at the helm of the nation's top public research institute.
Collins, the longest serving director to-date, announced he was leaving earlier this month, but not into retirement. Instead, he is going back to his lab, in the National Human Genome Research Institute.
"I fundamentally believe, however, that no single person should serve in the position too long, and that it’s time to bring in a new scientist to lead the NIH into the future," he said in his statement.
Collins has lead the nation's top science research agency through three administrations in 12 years — marking the first time a director has remained beyond a single administration. He previously served as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, where he was part of the international effort to sequence the human genome.
Throughout the pandemic, he has been a vocal proponent of and ensured funding for COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests, and especially speaking to those of the Christian faith, leaning on his own example as a practicing Christian to help assuage fears and concerns.
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