If there’s anything the COVID-19 pandemic was supposed to teach us, it was that we either stick together or get hanged separately. There was even an expectation that once a vaccine is developed, we would all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Humanity would unite since there had never been a better time in recent memory to come together than now.
2.6 million worldwide deaths later, with numbers projected to rise in the coming months despite the global vaccine rollout campaigns, there’s unfortunately no evidence of global solidarity as developing countries are left behind in the vaccine stockpiling race.
So far, countries leading in the vaccination efforts include the United States, China, India, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Turkey, Israel, Germany and Russia. The disparity with developing countries is staggering. For instance, while the US has managed to vaccinate 18.6% of the population, Kenya has only administered to 0.1%.
Much as some countries are yet to receive vaccines, the hesitation by leaders – presidents and heads of government – to get vaccinated publicly in countries which have already received the vaccine has done little in terms of confidence-building. This lack of leading from the front has heightened misinformation among citizens, a state of affairs partly to blame for the low numbers of immunised people.
Vaccine equity is proving to be a test on society’s moral fabric.
As a result of ongoing vaccine inequity, health experts and activists are calling for pharmaceutical companies to share patented information that will enable the production of generic equivalents of the vaccines.
In October 2020, South African and Indian governments issued a request to the World Trade Organization (WTO) asking for a waiver on certain provisions of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, commonly referred to as the TRIPS Agreement.
An international legal agreement between all the member nations of WTO, the TRIPS Agreement allows member states to provide more extensive protection of intellectual property if they so wish. Member states are left to determine the appropriate method of implementing the provisions of the Agreement within their own legal system and practice. Coming into effect in 1995, TRIPS is to date the most comprehensive multilateral agreement on intellectual property.
Granting the waiver would remove barriers to the timely access to affordable medical products and allow for the scaling-up of manufacturing and supply of essential medical products. The waiver request would be temporary, and only applicable to certain intellectual property rights on COVID-19 medical tools and technologies until herd immunity is achieved.
On 4 March 2021, activists from Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) protested outside the WTO’s office in Geneva, Switzerland, demanding for wealthy countries to stop blocking the TRIPS waiver.
The waiver proposal is now officially co-sponsored by 58 governments, mostly from countries classified as least-developed, with around 100 countries supporting the proposal overall.
There have been ongoing talks within WTO since October. However, most governments with monopolies on medical tools have opposed the motion, while others have not yet declared their stand. Countries that are obstructing the proposal include the UK, US, Australia, Canada, the EU, Japan and Switzerland. Less surprisingly, these countries have also secured the majority of available vaccines.
This could be considered a case of national self-interest. So far, the US has ordered vaccine doses enough to fully immunise 750 million people, yet the country has about 260 million adults. Similarly, the UK has ordered doses more than five times its population.
Both countries have ordered from at least six different vaccine manufacturers including Sanofi-GSK, which is still in clinical trial.
There are currently ten COVID-19 vaccines, three of which are manufactured in the United States by profit-driven big pharmaceutical companies. Pfizer, for instance, is projected to make a total of $15billion in COVID-19 sales this year. The same goes for Moderna, who are forecasting sales of $18.4 billion.
On 17 March 2021, a group of lawmakers in the US urged President Joe Biden to support the TRIPS waiver. The Trump administration had rejected the move before leaving office, and now lawmakers are calling on the new administration to reconsider.
“Many countries with vaccine manufacturing capacity can start producing their own vaccines by waiving intellectual property rights, as provided for in the TRIPS agreement. Those provisions are there for use in emergencies,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director-General in a press conference on 1 March 2021.
Another barrier to increasing the speed and volume of production of vaccines is the shortage of raw materials including glass, plastic and stoppers. WHO’s short term approach to this is connecting companies that are producing vaccines with other companies that have excess capacity to fill and finish. This could potentially help in speeding up the production and increase volumes. In early March 2021, Johnson & Johnson, one of the COVID-19 manufacturers, partnered with Merck to provide fill and finish for the vaccine.
It’s about time developed countries see beyond their national interests, like in the case of the Polio epidemic that shook the US for the better part of the 1950s decade. In 1955, Jonas Salk, an American virologist and medical researcher who developed one of the first successful polio vaccines was asked who owned the patent. In response, he said, “Well, the people, I would say,” before proceeding to ask the interviewer rhetorically, “Could you patent the sun?”
At the end of the day, what every nation is aiming to achieve with the scramble for vaccines is herd immunity, which is the indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a population is immune, either through vaccination or immunity developed through previous infection.
While countries such as the US may be inches closer to achieving this goal, most developing countries will not have vaccinated half their populations by the end of 2021. Considering that COVID-19 vaccines haven’t been approved yet for children below the age of 16, the burden becomes even heavier.
With new and virulent strains of COVID-19 emerging in different countries at the moment, the race for the vaccines will only get tougher and more competitive. Sadly, the world has to bow down to Big Pharma politics, unless something drastic happens.