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In late May, World Bank President David Malpass reaffirmed his call for greater transparency in COVID-19 vaccine contracts. While the World Bank, World Health Organization, and other institutions have made steps to elevate the issue of transparency in COVID-19 vaccine deals, actions to translate this agenda into practice are nascent—and these calls remain largely unanswered by the global community.

As laid out by our colleague Charles Kenny, the Open Contracting Partnership, and others, public interest in transparent vaccine purchasing is immense amidst a pandemic. Transparency strengthens global and national decision-making on global vaccine allocation, equity, the scale-up of vaccine production and distribution, and outbreak response efforts. Yet, a new report by Transparency International (TI) and the WHO Collaborating Centre for Governance, Accountability, and Transparency in the Pharmaceutical Sector highlights how opaque information from COVID-19 vaccine suppliers and buyers has been thus far and calls for rapid and robust policy reforms to embed transparency into contracting processes. This Wednesday, June 16, CGD and TI will convene a discussion on the role of transparency in improving COVID-19 vaccine procurement – RSVP to join us.

Key takeaways, ideas, and questions

Below we share five initial takeaways and questions, with the aim of promoting further discussion and action:

1. We remain alarmingly in the dark about COVID-19 vaccine deals.

Just 6 percent (11 out of 182) of vaccine contracts between developers and public buyers have been published through formal channels, forcing global and national policymakers to make decisions absent adequate information. In the public domain, UNICEF’s COVID-19 Vaccine Market Dashboard includes information on vaccine contracts (including COVAX’s) and some price data, but is largely based on news reports and press releases as opposed to the actual contracts.

Total global spending on COVID-19 vaccines is projected to reach $54 billion this year (approximately 27 times total health spending in low- and middle-income countries). Given the sheer scale of financing being deployed and the dire human and economic costs of the pandemic, policymakers need all possible information to land a coordinated and equitable global response. How can vaccine developers and buyers be incentivized to go beyond press releases and routinely publish relevant contract details? What can we learn from the few cases where contracts were published through formal channels?

2. Details other than price matter too.

While price-per-dose information often garners the greatest media interest, contract specifications beyond price can be just as important. The TI report summarizes which information is available or redacted/missing across available contracts; these components include the quantity of vaccines, delivery timelines, whether governments have “march-in-rights” to license the product to other suppliers, whether the buyer can send vaccines to different countries, penalties for non-performance, ownership of rights to the vaccine and know-how processes, and the scope and duration of indemnification (which protects manufacturers from legal liability). Knowledge Ecology International has also collated information on contracts, but pervasive redactions limit their usefulness.

Sparse information on delivery schedules and lead times is especially challenging in the COVID-19 context. In addition to throwing a wrench into global and national plans for vaccine rollout, unclear timetables block country visibility to assess which companies are able to stay on schedule and whether they might be taking on more orders than feasible.

Insights into confirmed purchase orders and manufacturing capacity are also critical. While some reports indicate that supply shortages might be resolved over the coming year, unknowns abound: some vaccines may not receive regulatory approval in all settings; existing manufacturers may not scale-up as promised; boosters could increase demand; variants may create challenges for some existing vaccines; and countries could continue to stockpile. Accurate, timely information on confirmed orders and global production capacity is vital to vaccination program planning and to coordinated efforts to increase manufacturing capacity.

Full details can prevent and combat fraud and corruption, build public trust, and hold governments accountable to value-for-money with taxpayer resources. Which contract components are most useful to decision-makers in LMIC contexts? Based on the experiences of policymakers immersed in often fast-paced decision-making for COVID-19, which vaccine procurement information should be prioritized for disclosure?

3. A comprehensive public repository is needed to act on deal information.

Contracts are long, complex documents. Even once public, their esoteric format can render the relevant information inaccessible to most. A central repository of demand and supply data, including information on the needs of countries, confirmed purchase orders, supplies of and manufacturing capacity for input materials and finished products, delivery times, and so on—all extracted and presented in a way that is easy to follow—is essential for information to be available, useful, and used.

While this type of platform takes time to set up, short-term possibilities should be considered, such as expanding the UNICEF dashboard or WHO Market Information for Access to Vaccines. Information could be anonymized to increase reporting and collated by a trusted institution, such as the World Bank or a well-established civil society organization like the Open Contracting Partnership.

What steps are needed for a comprehensive public repository to be set up, routinely updated, and effectively used? How can different multilateral, national, and civil society actors move this endeavor forward?

4. Industry should be brought to the table.

Pharmaceutical companies have delivered immense health and economic benefits through the development of highly efficacious vaccines in record time. But public distrust of pharmaceutical companies has escalated in the face of clear inequities in global vaccine rollout and concerns that pharmaceutical companies might be charging poor countries more, deprioritizing these markets in the “queue,” and hiding their profits. And according to TI, redactions in COVID-19 vaccine contracts are significantly larger than the same suppliers’ contracts for non-COVID vaccines. TI’s analysis also suggests that indemnification clauses are disproportionately applied to countries with less negotiating power, meaning that LMICs could be contractually obliged to cover more risks than wealthier countries.   

Amidst this backdrop, these firms stand to benefit from reducing their reputational risk and working together on a shared commitment to release contract information in the public domain. For this to work, companies and purchasers should agree on what standard information should be released and what should be commonly accepted as commercially sensitive in line with public interest, as detailed by a previous CGD working group. These standards would also place the onus on purchasers to provide justification in cases when details are not released. To this end, how might institutions such as the World Bank, alongside other partners, serve as a global honest broker and help convene buyers and sellers to develop transparency standards?

5. Now is the time for a global commitment to share vaccine procurement information.

Transparency in procurement contracts is crucial to the global COVID-19 response and to improving health and pandemic-related procurement in the future. The Open Contracting Partnership’s data standard (OCDS for short) is one promising way for users to share, analyze, and compare information, with such comparisons helping to drive home the efficiency and outcome benefits accrued by countries with more open approaches.

These efforts should be parallel to broader data sharing that encompasses pathogens, tests, treatments, and clinical trials, packaged as an information repository that serves as a key part of the global system to prevent and respond to future pandemics. In the long-run, governments and multilateral buyers must rethink emergency purchasing procedures in the face of challenging—but predictable—outbreak situations, striving for transparency and integrity even in emergencies. How might multilateral and regional entities, such as the World Bank, COVAX, CEPI, and Africa CDC, work alongside governments to align on and implement open data sharing and contracting?

We hope you’ll join us on Wednesday, June 16 at 9:00am ET to discuss these ideas and related topics. Ahead of and during the event, please share your reactions and questions in the comments section below, on Twitter @CGDev #CGDtalks, or via email at cgdevents@cgdev.org. We look forward to your thoughts and to continuing the important conversation.  

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Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.