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DÉJÀ VU

Rich countries are already hoarding monkeypox vaccines

A laboratory of the vaccine company Bavarian Nordic
Reuters/Lukas Barth
Stocking up.
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter based in New York City

Published

A total of 48 confirmed monkeypox cases have been identified in the US so far, as part of the first series of outbreaks of the virus to occur outside its endemic region of West and Central Africa.

Many more cases have emerged around the world—including 366 in the UK, 275 in Spain, and 209 in Portugal so far—and global health authorities are keeping track in order to avoid widespread contagion. Already, rich countries are ordering more vaccines than they’ll arguably need, taking a page from the covid response that left the world in a state of severe vaccine inequality.

Bavarian Nordic, the Danish maker of the most updated vaccine available for monkeypox, has received so many orders that it raised its 2022 revenue projections to roughly 2 billion Danish kroner ($280 million), up from an expected $110 million. The US—which invested in vaccine’s development—has ordered half a million doses, on top of the 1.5 million it already had stockpiled. It’s the largest order received by Bavarian Nordic thus far.

The vaccine in question is actually for smallpox. Although monkeypox has existed in Central and Western Africa for decades, little pharmaceutical investment has been dedicated to preventing and treating cases; the best option is to resort to vaccines and therapeutics developed in case of a smallpox terror attack, which also deliver good margins of protection against monkeypox. Bavarian Nordic’s smallpox vaccine is estimated to provide 85% protection against monkeypox.

Rich countries take care of their own

The US isn’t the only government fighting monkeypox anxiety by stocking up on smallpox vaccines, though it is the most transparent about it. On May 25, Bavarian Nordic said one undisclosed country had ordered sufficient vaccines to cover its potentially at-risk population in the short and medium term. Several other (unnamed) governments were also in negotiations to make large purchases of smallpox vaccine.

Meanwhile, monkeypox cases continue to climb in African countries and other low-income countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged rich country governments to share information about their smallpox stockpiles, and make themselves available to sharing doses if needed. WHO emergency chief Mike Ryan said that while it should be possible to contain outbreaks with isolation and targeted vaccinations—for example, of health workers—many countries could still need access to some quantities of vaccines and therapeutics.

So far, no countries made any pledges in response to the WHO’s request.

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