COVAX Chief Aurélia Nguyen Makes Equitable Access a Priority

Tackling vaccine distribution challenges and preparing for the next pandemic.

It’s not surprising that ‘vax’ is Oxford Languages’ word of 2021, given how much attention we paid to immunization in the past year. Despite vaccination campaign strides in developed countries, many parts of the world still lack access to lifesaving doses. How do we accelerate the vaccine manufacturing process? How do we ensure the shots are within reach to those who need them, regardless of their income? These are the questions that Aurélia Nguyen is trying to answer as managing director of the COVAX Facility, a global initiative led by health partnership Vaccine Alliance Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the World Health Organization (WHO), and UNICEF.

Prior to her appointment at COVAX, Nguyen worked as Gavi’s managing director for Vaccines & Sustainability, where she developed financially sustainable immunization programs for low-income countries. She is a certified accountant and holds a Master’s degree in Health Policy, Planning & Financing from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the London School of Economics. She is on TIME magazine’s TIME100 Next list as one of the 100 influential figures shaping their fields and future leaders.

Born in France to a Vietnamese father, the 44-year-old has lived in many countries around the world, including the United States and England. Currently, she is based in Switzerland, where Gavi is headquartered.

In an email interview with Culture Magazin in October, Nguyen shared about her work at COVAX and the motivation that led her to pursue this career path.

How did you feel when you were appointed Managing Director of COVAX last October?

I see my responsibility as a privilege and every day I am humbled that I get to work with an incredible team that is committed to our goal of global, equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. Yes, there are challenges; we have to work at a fast pace, while maintaining strong communication with countries and partners to ensure their needs are met. There are many late nights trying to iron out how we can make our vision a reality but ultimately, I remain committed and inspired by the work we do. We are all deeply conscious of the fact that we are only safe if everyone is safe and that is the biggest driver imaginable.

How would you describe COVAX’s progress in the last few months?  

COVAX is the largest and most complex vaccine distribution in history. As of today, we have delivered more than 384 million vaccine doses to 144 countries around the world. We have proved that our model works at scale, however it is clear that many more doses are needed if the world is to end the acute phase of this pandemic. To that end, we need governments, businesses and mulilateral agencies to prioritise equitable access and help COVAX deliver on its goal of helping countries bring the pandemic under control.

How can COVAX ensure an equitable vaccine distribution?
What are the unique challenges the organization faces?

COVAX has had to operate in a severely supply-constrained context in 2021. There are a number of reasons for this, including a lack of available doses by the time we raised funds, export restrictions that hit our major Indian vaccine supplier, the Serum Institute of India, and delays in securing regulatory approval of some of our promising vaccine candidates. Global production has now increased significantly, as have the number of available safe and effective vaccines, so it is critical that COVAX is able to get the doses it has been promised.

How have you connected with your heritage?

My father was born in Vietnam and has many fond memories of his childhood that he has transmitted to me when I was growing up. I was in my 20s when I had an opportunity to visit Vietnam for the first time and retrace the steps of his childhood, meet extended family members, and visit the tombs of my ancestors. It was a very emotional visit that connected me strongly to my country of origin. I saw all the things that had been described to me by my father and grandparents come alive ­– the beauty of its landscape, the delicious food, and the incredible generosity, as well as the great sense of humour of its people.

Who was your role model when you were younger? And now?

I’ve always found Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-lweala, Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), a hugely inspiring role model. As the first African woman to be head of the WTO, she has smashed through glass ceilings and paved the way for other women to take up leadership positions.

How do you balance work and family life?

This is the busiest period of my working life and so trying to find a balance between work and family life is a challenge. This is true for me and everyone involved with COVAX right now. I am lucky that since I am not travelling as much, I can make myself available for my family more often at key times after school, bedtime and on weekends. 

You used to work at global pharmaceutical company GSK and do research for the World Health Organization.
How has your experience in both private and non-profit sectors prepared you for this position?

I led the development of GSK’s policies on access to medicines and vaccines in the developing world. I have also undertaken research for the World Health Organization (WHO) on generic medicine policies. Both roles have afforded me a wealth of experience that I am now putting to good use leading the COVAX facility to ensure access to COVID-19 vaccines globally.

What drew you to this line of study and research?

I’ve dedicated my whole career to enabling equitable access to medicines and vaccines. It’s my north star. But I never expected to be in a position like this, doing the work I do. My parents worked in a bank, and I tried to follow in their footsteps and first trained in finance. In my undergraduate days I was fascinated by how science through drug discovery could make a huge impact on people’s lives, particularly in developing countries. Little by little I brought together my technical skills in finance, my fascination for the impact of medicines and vaccines and my desire to redress inequities faced by poor countries. That led me to work on projects when I was in the pharmaceutical industry focusing on developing countries, do a master’s degree and ultimately work on access to medicines and vaccines as my full-time job.

What will the new normal look like to you?

It’s still far from clear what the new normal is going to be. Without COVAX, most countries, from the wealthiest to the poorest, have little hope of getting rapid access to doses of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. If that happens, and large reservoirs of disease continue to circulate, the world – including for those living in wealthier nations – will not return to normal. The pandemic will continue to impact the global economy, trade, tourism, travel.

Global equitable access to a vaccine is the only way to mitigate the public health and economic impact of the pandemic on individuals, communities, and nations. In the context of this unprecedented pandemic, equity is not just the right thing to do – it is the necessary thing to do. No one is safe until everyone is safe because infectious diseases do not respect borders.

What are the lessons that we can learn from COVID-19?
What is the silver lining you’ve seen from the pandemic?

What we’ve learned is that the world needs to be better prepared for the next pandemic – with financing and R&D systems in place, as well as clear conditions for access – rather than leaving these issues to be resolved in the midst of scientific unknowns and fierce competition over limited global supply. My hope is that the pandemic can lead to support from governments, the private sector, and the public, in setting up mechanisms and systems to make sure that the world is ready for the next pandemic. We must also use the opportunity to build back better, so ultimately, we have stronger health systems that will be more resilient.

What is COVAX’s plan for the next stage in the pandemic?

COVAX’s goal is to protect the most vulnerable in all the countries that rely on it for doses – we are hoping to have 1.4 billion doses available for supply by the end of the year. However, this goal is at risk if export bans are not lifted, and manufacturers do not meet their public commitments to support COVAX and equitable access, instead continuing to supply a small portion of the world.

Dose donations are a helpful bridge, and we are grateful for the 600 million doses that have been pledged. However, we need this supply to accelerate, and be matched by the arrival of doses we have procured directly.

What can we as individuals do to help the world get through this global crisis?

We know that vaccines save lives but measures such as social distancing, avoiding crowded areas, wearing masks, and thoroughly cleaning hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water, are also essential in helping limit the spread of this highly transmissible virus. If all three measures are adopted, we will be well armed to tackle the pandemic.

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