Apartheid Is Back in the Supply and Production of Covid-19 Vaccines

Caroline de Braganza

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(Image by Frauke Riether from Pixabay)

A crucial World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting is happening today, on the anniversary of the declaration of Covid-19 as a global pandemic.

The Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) will discuss a proposal first put forward by South Africa and India, and now supported by 100 countries, to temporarily suspend patents for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments until the pandemic is over.

Broadly, member governments from rich countries oppose the idea, and low and middle-income countries support it.

When Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine was asked who owned his discovery, he replied, “The people. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Backstory

By November 2020, rich countries had pre-ordered the bulk of present and future vaccines, accounting for 13% of the world’s population! Canada had ordered the equivalent of 9 doses per person. These countries had the financial capacity to provide funds for research and development to pharmaceutical companies, allowing them to be at the front of the queue once production of approved vaccines began.

But demand for vaccines outstrips the ability of pharmaceutical companies to supply doses in sufficient quantities at the rate required if the goal is to beat this pandemic. Nobody is safe until the entire world is safe.

A patent waiver would allow countries to manufacture and supply generic copies of vaccines invented elsewhere.

It's happened before. In 2001, after years of public pressure, countries agreed to suspend patents on HIV/AIDS treatments, allowing manufacture of affordable, generic versions thus saving millions of lives.

Motivation for the waiver

Dr. Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Laureate, had this message for the WTO:

"We call on you to urgently ensure access to lifesaving Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and equipment for everyone in the world. Patents should be lifted, technological knowledge shared freely and openly, and no profiteering allowed during this pandemic. Governments, scientists, and pharmaceutical companies must cooperate and combine resources to ensure no one is left behind. The pandemic will not be over until it’s over everywhere."

Many other Nobel Laureates, former presidents and prime ministers, artists such as Matt Damon and Forest Whitaker, social activists, business leaders such as Sir Richard Branson, health and humanitarian movements and faith leaders such as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, urge that vaccines are produced rapidly at scale for all people in all countries.

The People’s Vaccine Alliance has called for a fair allocation of the vaccine

“which prioritizes health workers and other at-risk groups in all countries. Distribution among countries should be based on their population size. In-country vaccination programmes should include marginalized groups, including refugees, prisoners, and people living in slums and other crowded housing conditions. Allocation between and within countries should be based on need and not ability to pay.”

What happens if the proposal fails?

Figures provided by The New York Times on March 11 “Tracking Coronavirus Vaccinations Around the World” show this breakdown by continent of the number of doses administered per 100 people:

  • North America—17.4
  • Europe—10.2
  • South America—4.7
  • Asia—2.6
  • Africa—0.4
  • Oceania—0.3

This link provides comprehensive data updated daily.

Covax, a vaccine-sharing arrangement set up by the WHO for less wealthy countries, anticipates 2-billion doses delivered by end 2021. That would cover 20% of their populations.

Despite pledges of financial support from sovereign, private sector and philanthropic donors, that target will not be achieved if production of vaccines isn’t ramped up.

Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, said in a recent interview with The Guardian,

“Of the 225-million vaccine doses administered so far, the vast majority have been in a handful of rich and vaccine-producing countries, while most low- and middle-income countries watch and wait. A me-first approach might serve short-term political interests, but it is self-defeating and will lead to a protracted recovery, with trade and travel continuing to suffer. Any opportunity to beat this virus should be grabbed with both hands.”
“The threat is clear: as long as the virus is spreading anywhere, it has more opportunities to mutate and potentially undermine the efficacy of vaccines everywhere. We could end up back at square one.”

It could be a long wait before we defeat this pandemic.

Breaking news

No decision reached at meeting. WTO will continue discussions.

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