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March 8, 2021

Merkel’s party slumps on Covid woes as German polls loom: Global players brainstorm to boost vaccine output


March 8, 2021

GENEVA: Global players are gathering online from Monday to brainstorm ways to rapidly boost vaccine production and fight a still-virulent coronavirus that has hobbled the world for 14 months.

Giving impetus to the meeting is a warning from the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) that the pandemic will not end unless poor countries can keep up with accelerating mass vaccination campaigns in rich nations.

Meeting online on Monday and Tuesday will be partners of the Covax vaccine distribution initiative, led by the Gavi vaccine alliance and backed by research arm the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations as well as the WHO.

Government delegates, scientists and representatives of the pharmaceutical giants as well as smaller drug makers from developing countries will also participate. The aim is "to shine the light on the gaps that we have currently in the supply chain, of reagents, of raw material, of products that you need to make vaccines", WHO’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told a news conference on Friday.

The pharmaceutical industry aims to produce 10 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses this year, which is double the 2019 manufacturing capacity for all kinds of vaccines. Manufacturing these jabs requires not just an unprecedented quantity of ingredients, but also items such as glass for the vials and plastic for their caps -- at a time when global supply chains have been disrupted by the pandemic, Swaminathan said.

"So the summit is really focusing on that upstream area, the gaps, how they can be filled and for solutions to be found." Such interventions "can make a difference in the short term" even as WHO and others are already eyeing the longer-term course of the pandemic, she added.

Pressure from governments and public opinion has helped push the pharma groups, who usually jockey for a competitive advantage, into deals to produce more vaccine doses. With its own vaccine development lagging, France’s Sanofi will produce both the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Johnson & Johnson versions.

Merck will also turn out the J&J shots, Switzerland’s Novartis will make doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Curevac vaccine, while Germany’s Bayer is also set to help Curevac. Such deals are "very welcome", Swaminathan said.

"We would like to see more of this happening and in more parts of the world. "We need to explore the fill-and-finish capacity in Asia, in Africa and Latin America and use those facilities to increase supply."

Marie-Paule Kieny, research director at France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research, noted that "there are many generic drug manufacturers who have a high record... and good manufacturing practices, which could also help in this process".

But cooperation poses challenges over how to share or license the precious intellectual property pharmaceutical firms have invested heavily to create -- albeit often with significant state aid -- so they can at least recoup their costs.

Despite pressure from aid groups and the WHO, a proposal from India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization to temporarily suspend vaccine patents appears stalled.

Efforts at boosting vaccine production should help the worst-off nations -- who lack the cash to buy direct from pharma companies -- get their people immunised.

The ambitious Covax initiative is aiming to supply vaccines to dozens of countries in the first 100 days of 2021. It hopes to distribute enough doses -- around 1.3 billion -- to vaccinate up to 27 percent of the population in the 92 poorest participating economies by the end of the year.

But the first Covax shots have only been distributed in recent days, with around 20 million reaching 20 different countries. Wealthy nations meanwhile, have been vaccinating since December.

With more than 14 million more doses to be delivered next week, "this is encouraging progress", said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "But the volume of doses being distributed through Covax is still relatively small."

Covax will supply enough shots for just 2-3 percent of recipient countries’ populations by June, "even as other countries make rapid progress towards vaccinating their entire population within the next few months", he added.

Meanwhile, with just a week to go before two key regional elections, support for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives has hit a one-year low on growing anger over the country’s pandemic crisis management.

Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc fell to 32 percent in a survey carried out by the Kantar institute for Bild newspaper on Sunday, a two-percent drop on last week that pushes Germany’s biggest political force to its lowest level since March 2020.

"There are many reasons for the decline, and they all have to do with the pandemic," said Bild. The slump is bad news for the conservatives ahead of the March 14 elections for regional parliament in the states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg.

Both polls are being closely watched as a test of the national mood ahead of Germany’s general election on September 26 -- which will be the first in over 15 years not to feature outgoing chancellor Merkel.

In Rhineland-Palatinate, the CDU/CSU has now fallen behind the centre-left Social Democrats, while the Green party leads surveys in Baden-Wuerttemberg.

Merkel’s centre-right CDU and their Bavarian CSU sister party hit a popularity peak of nearly 40 percent last spring, when Germany won plaudits at home and abroad for successfully suppressing the first Covid-19 wave. But Europe’s top economy was hit hard by a virus resurgence at the end of 2020, and Merkel’s coalition government has increasingly found itself in the firing line.

Despite months of painful shutdowns, the country’s infection numbers have stopped falling in recent days. The slow pace of Germany’s vaccination campaign, snarled by distribution issues and red tape, as well as a delayed start to mass rapid coronavirus testing have further eroded confidence in the government.

Adding to Merkel’s woes is a growing scandal linked to the procurement of face masks early on in the pandemic. A CSU lawmaker, Georg Nuesslein, was last month placed under investigation for bribery following accusations that he accepted some 600,000 euros ($715,000) to lobby for a mask supplier.

A similar controversy has embroiled CDU lawmaker Nikolas Loebel, whose company took a 250,000-euro commission for acting as an intermediary in mask contracts. Loebel announced on Sunday that he was bowing out of politics.

"Those who use the people’s suffering to fill their pockets have no place in parliament," thundered the CDU/CSU’s youth wing on Twitter. It marks a stark reversal of fortune for the conservatives, and observers say the pandemic missteps could cast a long shadow over Merkel’s legacy.

In the early days of the virus fight, Germans uncomplainingly complied with former scientist Merkel’s restrictions, which along with widespread testing and a world-class health system helped keep the coronavirus in check.

Merkel’s own popularity soared to fresh heights, and more than 70 percent of Germans approved of her government’s handling of the crisis. That figure has now dropped to just 35 percent, a YouGov poll found, as the country reels from new and more contagious virus variants, shutdown fatigue and a confusing patchwork of rules across Germany’s 16 federal states.

With Germany’s virus track record no longer the envy of Europe, much of the blame has fallen on Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) -- once tipped as a possible Merkel successor. "That’s enough, Mr Spahn!" the Spiegel weekly wrote last week, calling for his resignation.

"Not enough masks, not enough vaccines, delayed rapid tests. The crisis policies have become a farce," it said. "Is this really Germany?"