Monkeypox vaccine-maker urged to put ‘people before profit’ and stop gatekeeping jab

A man receives a monkeypox vaccine

The world’s only monkeypox vaccine-maker must stop gate-keeping the jab or else the virus could become “endemic”, advocates have warned.

Dutch drug company Bavarian Nordic is the sole supplier of the smallpox vaccine being used against monkeypox, Imvanex.

Since the monkeypox outbreak began, wealthier countries have gobbled up Bavarian Nordic’s supplies, creating inequalities in the distribution in much the same way as they did for the COVID-19 pandemic, campaign group Global Justice Now has warned.

The company has already sold its entire stockpile of ready-to-go vaccines and it can’t make any more until 2023.

In a letter to Bavarian Nordic, Global Justice Now joined Just Treatment and Stop Aids in calling on the drug maker to share its vaccine manufacturing method with the world.

Doing so would mean more manufacturers, such as those in the global south, could export vaccines themselves for sale worldwide – something which would be especially game-changing for low-income countries.

The move would also ease the burden the Bavarian Nordic is facing after it was forced to close part of its assembly line in June.

Across the world, vaccine shortages have threatened to undermine efforts to curb climbing monkeypox cases. In Britain, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) announced on Monday (15 August) it will run out of vaccines altogether by the end of the month, with new stocks not expected until September.

So far, the NHS has vaccinated more than 27,000 people in England. Yet in Africa, not a single vaccine has been administered since the outbreak began in May.

Currently, intellectual property restrictions can make it difficult for public health officials to make medicines widely available as it stops factories from making them. The drug industry has long argued placing vaccine recipes under lock and key is crucial for innovation.

But Nick Deardon, who is at the helm of the vaccine campaign as director of Global Justice Now, doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s very sad but it’s not surprising because we have a pharmaceutical system which is really dedicated to very high profits, not to making life-saving drugs, especially not life-saving drugs for people who can’t afford to pay enormous amounts of money for them,” he told PinkNews.

People line up to receive monkeypox vaccinations at Guys Hospital

People line up to receive monkeypox vaccinations at London’s Guys Hospital. (Getty/ Hollie Adams)

He pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic when vaccine-makers refused to share their knowledge with manufacturers – including Bavarian Nordic, which offered to make the jab.

This made it all the more disappointing that the company is now seemingly doing the same with its monkeypox vaccine, Deardon said.

“That’s just completely at odds with the need to stop diseases spreading, save lives and prevent suffering,” he said.

The eruption of monkeypox globally took many health experts by surprise, leaving them confused about how a virus so difficult to transmit has spread so rapidly with symptoms it never typically showed.

But they do know one thing – the virus has so far been disproportionately seen in queer men. In a study of more than 500 cases reported in 16 countries between April and June, investigators found 98 per cent of monkeypox cases were among queer men.

And Deardon said the LGBTQ+ community knows a thing or two about fighting against powerful pharmaceutical companies to get the healthcare they need. For him, the battle is same old, same old – pointing to HIV medications that enable those living with the virus to lead long healthy lives often coming with hefty price tags because of patents.

“When I first came out, I was surrounded by a generation of gay and bisexual men who’d had to fight for their right to medication and healthcare, because they knew no one else would,” he said of the AIDS epidemic that tore through the world in the 1980s.

Drug makers must learn from the AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic. If Bavarian Nordic doesn’t make public its blueprint for the monkeypox vaccine, Deardon says the disease might become “endemic” and always around.

“In fact, if we’d taken the healthcare needs of those in the African countries, where this disease has existed for many years, seriously, we wouldn’t be here. But sadly, the so-called property rights of these big corporations trumps that.

“I mean how wrong is it that the African continent hasn’t got a single dose of this vaccine even though more people have died of monkeypox there than everywhere else put together?”

More than 31,000 monkeypox cases have been recorded globally by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of them, 25,325 were gay and bisexual men and men who have sex with men, the agency said.

As of 8 August, there are 2,914 confirmed monkeypox cases in the UK, according to UKHSA data.

PinkNews contacted Bavarian Nordic for comment.