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May 10, 2021

Race against the virus

While the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines was a truly impressive achievement, it has been tarnished by constraints on global vaccine supply and the related inequities in distribution. As of May 4, less than 8 percent of the world’s population had received even one dose of any Covid-19 vaccine, while just ten rich countries accounted for 80 percent of all vaccinations. The reason is not just that rich countries have been buying up all available doses; it is also that there simply have not been enough doses to go around.

But this scarcity itself is largely artificial. Vaccine production has been limited by pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to share knowledge and technology. Though the companies producing the approved vaccines have benefited from public subsidies and publicly funded research, they nonetheless have taken advantage of patent protections to maintain a monopoly, limiting production to their own factories and a select few other companies to whom they have granted licenses.

These patents are enshrined and enforced internationally through the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which allows for action to be taken against countries that provide compulsory licenses allowing “someone else to produce a patented product or process without the consent of the patent owner.” It is this threat of legal action that led a majority of WTO members to propose a temporary waiver for Covid-19 drugs, vaccines, diagnostics, and other technologies needed to fight the pandemic. And yet, even this minor step has been blocked in the WTO TRIPS Council, because (mostly) rich countries have been prioritizing big pharmaceutical companies' interests over global health.

A waiver has become all the more urgent with the coronavirus on the rampage across South America and India, where a near-complete breakdown of overstretched health services is resulting in a catastrophic loss of life. Worse, the rapid spread of the virus has already given rise to dangerous new variants. We absolutely must vaccinate as many people as possible before vaccine-resistant variants emerge.

Temporarily waiving IP rights is essential, but it is only the first step. A waiver agreement would address the previously insurmountable legal side of the problem. But much more will need to be done to make a ‘People’s Vaccine’ universally available as soon as possible. The next step is to push for concrete measures to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and technology.

Excerpted: ‘Crucial Next Steps for a Successful People’s Vaccine’

Commondreams.org