During the Global Impact in Health Symposium, Dr. Emile Bienvenu, Director General of the Food and Drug Authority of Rwanda and Hans Schikan, PharmD, Topteam Member Dutch Topsector Life Sciences & Health (Health Holland, organizing partner of the symposium) and former Special Envoy for Vaccines will reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic till date and discuss how to create a better global ecosystem to generate more impact on patients. Hans Schikan shares his experience as Special Envoy for Vaccines and what he expects from the fireside chat with Dr. Emile Bienvenu.
Challenges in vaccine equity
The pandemic has shown the challenges the world faces related to vaccine equity. “Production, political and human bottlenecks play key roles in vaccine equity. There was a harrowing contrast between countries in terms of access to vaccines. It became especially apparent how little access low income countries had to vaccines”, says Schikan, to which he adds: “From a moral standpoint, you want to help everyone. But even looking past moral viewpoints, it is in everyone’s best interest, including high-income countries, that all countries have easy access to vaccines. As we have seen multiple times during the pandemic, when a virus is free to spread and mutate due to insufficient protection in the population, this may lead to variants of concern that the vaccines are less or not effective against, leading to a prolonged fight against the pandemic. Even now we can see new mutations of the Omikron variant popping up without having a clear understanding of the potential harm of these variants.”
The COVID pandemic in numbers
As of now (May 2022), over half a billion COVID cases have been registered, although Schikan expects the real amount of cases to be a lot higher. “A lot of countries have removed mandatory testing in certain situations and even before it was difficult to track all COVID cases due to for instance asymptomatic patients. What we do know is that around six million people have died from COVID. In terms of vaccination, around two thirds of the global population has received at least one dose of a vaccine. 75 percent of high income country populations has received two doses or even three, and worryingly only one out of six people in low income countries has received one dose of a vaccination, emphasizing how these countries, even after a year, still fall far behind high-income countries. Especially in these areas the virus is able to continue mutating.”
The need for a better infrastructure
The reason these countries fall so far behind is because the entire infrastructure surrounding vaccination is insufficient or lacking completely. “Easy access to vaccines also influences people’s willingness to get vaccinated. The two are connected. Thankfully, initiatives to help build a decent infrastructure have been initiated to not only improve the current situation, but also prepare low-income countries and, thus, the world for future pandemics. A great example is German BioNTech’s decision to build a production facility in Rwanda, which not only helps Rwanda, but also bordering countries.” But production facilities are just one piece of the puzzle, Schikan emphasizes. “There needs to be trained staff at the facilities to make these vaccines, but also to validate and approve these vaccines. Furthermore, we could all benefit from standardizing certain processes in the entire chain. We have encountered so many chronic shortages in not only trained staff, but also in needed materials like vials and bioreactor bags. Standardization could help to easily exchange materials globally.”
Expectations for the fireside chat
It is in this light that Schikan is interested to learn the specific needs of countries like Rwanda in his fireside chat with Dr. Emile Bienvenu. “I want to learn how Dutch institutions can play a role in increasing availability of vaccines in Rwanda and Africa. We have a lot of knowledge, like the Biotech Training Facility in Leiden where we train staff for inspection and evaluation of medicines and vaccines. How can we help train Rwandan staff? How do we use the knowledge and expertise of companies like Intravacc, BioConnection, Bilthoven Biologicals and Janssen to benefit Rwanda and Africa? I hope the fireside chat leads to a better understanding of the subject for listeners and stimulates setting up collaborations to improve the global healthcare stage now and in the future.”
Hans Schikan is interested to learn what Dr. Emile Bienvenu considers necessary steps to take, looking at more than just the production units. “How do we set up a solid ecosystem and what are the most important Rwandan needs we ought to address? What efforts are expected from high-income countries and the Netherlands? What opportunities can we identify to work together? And how can we link healthcare policies to industrial policies, stimulating not only healthcare improvement in low-income countries, but also economic growth?” These are just some of the questions Schikan hopes to discuss with Dr. Bienvenu.
Join us on May 30th!
This fireside chat is part of the Global Impact in Health Symposium taking place May 30th. Check out the entire programme here. You can also register directly for online participation here!
The symposium is part of the European Life Sciences & Health week. Check out more information about the week here.
The African-European Tuberculosis Consortium (AE-TBC) is an international multisite group of African and European researchers who investigate the use of host biosignatures for the diagnosis of active TB disease. For over ten years, the LUMC groups of Infectious Diseases and Cell & Chemical Biology from Prof Annemieke Geluk and Dr Paul Corstjens respectively, have been partners of the EDCTP consortia for tuberculosis (among which AE-TBC). The AE-TBC recently won the prize for ‘Outstanding Research Team 2020, awarded by the EDCTP.
The Janssen-Cilag International N.V COVID-19 vaccine has received authorization for emergency use by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on March 11. Developed with fundamental support from the Molecular Virology group of the Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC), it is the fourth vaccine to be administered in the European Union. The Netherlands has ordered more than 11 million vaccine doses.
“This is an achievement in alignment with the mission of VODAN-Africa to generate continuous, real-time, high velocity clinical observational patient data from resource-limited communities that have not been well represented in digital health data. The key feature is that the data produced remains in the health facility only. It will not leave the health facility. Since the data is machine-actionable the input of the data only happens once; in the deployable architecture, the data is used for four parallel use cases” (VODAN to Africa, 2022).