A row two weeks ago between the European Union and Astra Zeneca over COVID-19 vaccine delivery ended with dueling releases of contract excerpts. That highlighted the stunning fact that the full texts of COVID-19 vaccine contracts aren’t already in the public domain. Drugs created with billions in government support, bought almost exclusively by governments and international agencies are shrouded in secrecy: who is paying how much for delivery of what by when is a matter of guesswork and estimate. But that information is vital to our effort to effectively combat the virus worldwide. It is time for COVID-19 vaccine contract transparency.
Working together, governments and the pharmaceutical industry created and began to roll out vaccines in record time—less than twelve months since the virus was first identified. The drugs are being produced and sold at a price that will be dwarfed by their positive health and economic impact. This is a considerable success, but we are on the verge of snatching defeat from this potential victory. Vaccine rollout is being mistargeted and delayed by contracts negotiated between governments and companies in secret—making deals that will slow global response to a growing threat. Fixing this problem is urgent: as new COVID-19 variants emerge in countries where the virus rages out of control, there is a risk that vaccines may become less effective and our hopes of a return to normal are put on hold.
The arguments against contract publication don’t stand up to scrutiny. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some buyers have argued that releasing pricing information on their existing contracts will put them in a weaker negotiating position with manufacturers when it comes to new deals. But at the moment, there is global demand for far more vaccines than are being produced. If there is competition, it isn’t between producers on the basis of lowest price, but governments and international organizations trying to outbid each other for early access.
That fact obviates other traditional arguments in favor of keeping prices secret, not least that it helps "tiered pricing"—pharmaceutical companies charging poorer countries less than rich countries for the same drugs. The evidence that this is standard practice has always been weak, and in the case of COVID-19 vaccines a number of manufacturers say they are delivering vaccines at cost to all rather than tiering to make a larger profit in rich countries. Add to that the little we know suggests poor countries are often paying more: the European Commission is paying $2.19 per dose for Astra Zeneca’s vaccine compared to $5.00 for the Philippines or $5.25 for South Africa. The African Union is paying $10 for the Janssen vaccine compared to Europe’s $8.50. That may be related to up-front financing for vaccine development by rich countries –but without contract publication, we can’t be sure.
In the past, pharmaceutical companies have also raised the concern that publishing contracts would provide information on production capacity, often considered commercially sensitive information. But it may be that production capacity is already 100 percent utilized. Furthermore, there is a compelling public interest in knowing what current and future production capacity is for COVID-19 vaccines, as it provides the information to know how rapidly global and national vaccination programs can proceed. And if we aren’t in fact at 100 percent capacity, this is vital public knowledge, too.
This brings us to the case for publication: two years ago, a group of representatives from industry (including pharmaceuticals), government, and civil society met at CGD to create a set of consensus principles around commercial secrecy and government contract publication. One of those principles was that redaction and publication decisions should be made on the basis of the public interest.
In the midst of a global pandemic where vaccines present our best hope of a return to normality, the public interest in knowing which governments have paid what for how many vaccines due when is overwhelming compared to the public interest in preserving commercial secrecy for pharmaceutical companies. In addition, contracts contain information not just about prices, dates, and quantities—they can have clauses about liability, conditions on who else a manufacturer is allowed to sell to and when, and intellectual property and licensing. All of those contracting details will allow for improved preparation for vaccination drives and budgeting for vaccines and vaccination programs, it will aid more rational national and global decision-making on who gets access to vaccines in what order, and more rapid responses to capacity gaps in both production and distribution of vaccines. And it will allow governments, firms, and individuals to better understand the likely future course of the pandemic, and plan accordingly.
This is information that the public has the right to know. Not least, in the case of Moderna and AstraZeneca, 100 percent of the costs of bringing the vaccines to market appear to have been covered by government grants. The story will be similar with most other vaccines. Much of the underlying research was carried out in government research centers and university laboratories—again, financed by taxpayers. Nearly all of the product is being purchased by governments. And, put simply, the contracts involve issues of life and death.
One advantage of the recent argument between AstraZeneca and the European Union was that it demonstrated the feasibility of publication. The European Commission suggested it was “100 percent open” to publishing the full contract involved. It is time for this to become the standard, and for an urgent global agreement between pharmaceutical companies and governments to publish existing and future COVID-19 vaccine contracts as part of greater openness throughout the vaccine production and distribution chain. In the longer term, that should be strengthened by a global agreement on transparency around research and response to pandemics covering information about the microbes, tests, treatments, and vaccines, including research, medical trial data, contracting, and use. The world responds better to global threats when it does so transparently and together.