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Student campaign for affordable access to Oxford COVID-19 vaccine

Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), a global network of university students, is campaigning for affordable, global access to a COVID-19 vaccine. UAEM UK talked to Cherwell about their endeavours “to ensure that publicly funded COVID-19 vaccines developed in Oxford are widely and equitably accessible to those who need it most.” 

The campaign has developed a mapping tool to track public funding of COVID-19 research and development in universities. It visualises information synthesised from government databases and publicly funded institutions. The tool is currently tracking the funding of university groups in 13 countries.

UAEM UK told Cherwell that their tool aims to highlight the role of the public sector in research, because the “contribution of the public is virtually never reflected in the pricing, accessibility, and affordability of the final drug.”

“The public deserves a return on public investment by ensuring that COVID-19 vaccines are the global public goods which the UK public want – there was a recent survey by [the Wellcome Trust] which supported the overwhelming public majority behind universal equitable access to a vaccine.”

Emily Swift, an Oxford medical student who is part of the UAEM UK campaign, told Cherwell: “It’s hard for people to access this information from fairly dense websites. The goal is to allowed people who are interested to find where their money is going… Hopefully this is a way to hold institutions a bit more accountable for what people’s money is being used for.” 

UAEM UK have been assessing the licensing agreements for the University of Oxford COVID-19 vaccine. They have concerns about “potential stockpiling by rich countries, namely the USA and the UK, to secure access to the vaccine before others.”

AstraZeneca state they have the capacity to produce one billion doses through 2020 and 2021. UAEM UK note that agreements for “at least 400 million doses” have been made so far, 100 million for the UK and 300 million for the US: “That’s forty percent gone.”

Oxford University have set out guidance to organisations about the licensing of University intellectual property about COVID-19 related products and services. It states that the default approach will be to “offer non-exclusive, royalty-free licences to support free of charge, at-cost, or cost + limited margin supply as appropriate, and only for the duration of the pandemic, as defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO).”

UAEM UK expressed concerns to Cherwell that this means non-exclusive licensing of the vaccine will be limited to the duration of the pandemic. Once the WHO downgrades the classification of the virus spread, prices may increase, which is “likely to disproportionately affect countries and parts of society which are unable to rapidly manufacture or access  vaccines and other treatments once they become available.”

UAEM UK have requested that the full licensing terms of the Oxford University vaccine are made public, to clarify the safeguards in place and to prevent the creation of potential monopoly-generation protections. They also have requested that Astra Zeneca declare their manufacturing costs, to verify their commitment to pricing a vaccine product “at cost” during the pandemic. 

A statement made by AstraZeneca this week states that it is “collaborating with a number of countries and multilateral organisations to make the University of Oxford’s vaccine widely accessible around the world in an equitable manner.” It also states that it is engaging with international organisations and governments “for the fair allocation and distribution of the vaccine around the world.”

UAEM UK told Cherwell: “Given the state of global access to medicines, we feel that more is necessary and we need more information. We also want the companies involved, so far only AstraZeneca, to make good on their promises to make the vaccine affordable and accessible to everyone – we haven’t seen any concrete evidence of this yet. While everyone is saying the right things, these still need to be turned into actions.”

UAEM is campaigning for universities to sign the ‘Open COVID’ pledge. Developed by an international group of scientists and lawyers, this encourages organisations to commit to providing non-exclusive, royalty-free licenses for their products, processes, and information for up to one year after the pandemic. 

UAEM UK also wrote to the Jenner Institute, in collaboration with other organisations including Just Treatment and Global Justice Now, to request that the deal between Oxford and AstraZeneca be made public, and to explain how it safeguards fair access for all. 

They have not yet received a response to the letter. A University spokesperson recommended to Cherwell that questions about the University policy for licensing COVID-19 related intellectual property be directed to AstraZeneca, as they are handling manufacturing. 

UAEM UK note that Oxford University and researchers have “said all the right things so far and made lots of positive steps”, but want this to turn “into concrete action that challenges the dominant model of excessive pharmaceutical profits and exclusivity.”

Image from mapping tool created by UAEM student volunteers.

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