• Strong health systems, adequate testing capacity, and an effective, universally available vaccine will be key to protecting societies from COVID-19.
  • Ensuring that no one is left behind requires not just unprecedented collective investment, but also a very different approach to innovation, write Mariana Mazzucato and Els Toreele.

In the early weeks of 2020, it started to dawn on people that COVID-19 could be the long-dreaded but expected “Disease X” – a global pandemic caused by an unknown virus. Three months later, the majority of the world’s population is in lockdown, and it is clear that we are only as healthy as our neighbors – locally, nationally, and internationally.

Strong health systems, adequate testing capacity, and an effective, universally available vaccine will be key to protecting societies from COVID-19. But ensuring that no one is left behind requires not just unprecedented collective investment, but also a very different approach.

Researchers at universities and companies around the world are racing to develop a vaccine. And current progress is encouraging: 73 vaccine candidates are actively being explored or are in preclinical development, while five already have entered clinical trials.

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73 vaccine candidates are actively being explored or are in preclinical development.
Image: Nature

These massive efforts are possible only because of substantial public investment, including by the US National Institutes of Health and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). The latter, a publicly funded non-profit organization, was established after the 2014-16 West African Ebola epidemic to drive research and development of vaccines that could be deployed during disease outbreaks.

CEPI has so far received an extra $765 million of a targeted $2 billion in funding for COVID-19 vaccine development from multiple governments. The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, has invested substantially in vaccine-development projects with Johnson & Johnson ($450 million) and Moderna ($483 million). And the European Union intends to mobilize further public funding to tackle the pandemic at an online pledging conference on May 4.

But investment alone is not enough. To succeed, the entire vaccine-innovation process, from R&D to access, must be governed by clear and transparent rules of engagement based on public-interest goals and metrics. That, in turn, will require a clear alignment between global and national public interests.

The first, critical step is to adopt a mission-oriented approach that focuses both public and private investments on achieving a clearly defined common goal: developing an effective COVID-19 vaccine(s) that can be produced at global scale rapidly and made universally available for free. Realizing this aim will require firm rules regarding intellectual property (IP), pricing, and manufacturing, designed and enforced in ways that value international collaboration and solidarity, rather than competition between countries.1

Second, to maximize the impact on public health, the innovation ecosystem must be steered to use collective intelligence to accelerate advances. Science and medical innovation thrives and progresses when researchers exchange and share knowledge openly, enabling them to build upon one another’s successes and failures in real time.

But today’s proprietary science does not follow that model. Instead, it promotes secretive competition, prioritizes regulatory approval in wealthy countries over wide availability and global public-health impact, and erects barriers to technological diffusion. And, although voluntary IP pools like the one that Costa Rica has proposed to the World Health Organization can be helpful, they risk being ineffective as long as private, for-profit companies are allowed to retain control over critical technologies and data – even when these were generated with public investments.

Moreover, collective steering is vital in order to select and pursue the most promising potential vaccines. Otherwise, marketing authorization may go to the best-resourced candidate rather than the most suitable one.

Third, countries must take the lead in building and buttressing manufacturing capabilities, particularly in the developing world. While an effective COVID-19 vaccine probably will not be available for another 12-18 months, a concerted effort is needed now to put in place the public and private capacity and infrastructure needed to produce rapidly the billions of doses that will be required.

Because we don’t know yet which vaccine will prove most effective, we may need to invest in a range of assets and technologies. This poses a technological and financial risk that can be overcome only with the help of entrepreneurial states backed by collective, public-interest-driven financing, such as from national and regional development banks, the World Bank, and philanthropic foundations.

Finally, conditions for ensuring global, equitable, and affordable access must be built into any vaccine-development program from the start. This would allow public investments to be structured less like a handout or simple market-fixer, and more like a proactive market-shaper, driven by public objectives.