So how can these vaccines be made desirable to more of the people who need them? One way would be to subject them to a formal assessment by an international organization with technical expertise. The problem currently is that the World Health Organization’s rules for certifying vaccines are themselves skewed in favor of rich, essentially Western, states.
The W.H.O. maintains a list of “stringent regulatory authorities” it trusts for quality control — all are European countries except for Australia, Canada, Japan and the United States. For the rest of the world, the W.H.O. runs a service called prequalification. In theory, this is a way by which vaccines from, say, China or Russia could be placed on an equal footing with vaccines from the West. In reality, it’s an onerous and time-consuming process.
When a vaccine is developed in and approved by a country on the W.H.O.’s trusted list, the organization usually relies on that assessment to quickly sign off. But when a vaccine maker anywhere else applies for prequalification, the W.H.O. conducts a full evaluation from scratch, including a physical inspection of the manufacturing facilities.
The W.H.O. approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the end of 2020 less than two months after the makers applied for consideration, and it is expected to decide on the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines this month. The Chinese and Russian vaccines are still waiting in line, even though the review processes for those were initiated earlier.
In the course of reviewing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the W.H.O. worked closely with the European Medicines Agency, and approved it about 10 days after the E.M.A. had. There is no reason the W.H.O., while maintaining its standards, couldn’t also collaborate with health regulators in other countries to help local vaccine manufacturers get through the vetting process. It must urgently give all vaccine-producing countries the attention they deserve.
Some doctors and activists have put forward proposals to increase the delivery worldwide of vaccines produced in the West. These calls are well-intentioned, but they, too, assume that vaccines from Western countries are the only ones worth having — and waiting for.
There is a simpler solution, already at hand: It’s time to start trusting other countries’ vaccines.
Achal Prabhala is the coordinator of the AccessIBSA project, which campaigns for access to medicines, and a fellow of the Shuttleworth Foundation. Chee Yoke Ling is the executive director of Third World Network, an international policy research and advocacy organization headquartered in Penang, Malaysia.