With over 40 million cases and 1 million deaths worldwide, COVID-19 is the biggest global challenge in most of our lifetimes.
And yet, Western countries have been acting nationalistically. The world’s wealthiest nations (representing just 13% of the world’s population) have bought up 51% of potential vaccine stocks.
To tackle this, India and South Africa have proposed a temporary relaxing of patent and intellectual property rules (IPRs) on vital medicines. This would allow countries to reproduce a successful vaccine without paying huge licensing fees and waiting for patent clearance.
However, this request has been rejected by the US, EU, Canada, the UK and Switzerland, among other Western nations.
So why has the West does this? Many of these countries are at an advanced stage of developing a vaccine, having invested a lot of money in research. If IPRs are relaxed, these countries may not be able to sell their vaccine patents to cover their costs.
However, there are dangers to maintaining this stance. Even if a vaccine reaches the final stages of research, the chance of it working is still only 20%. Countries choosing to ‘go it alone’ are running the risk of their vaccine not working and lacking any alternatives. The UK’s approach to counter this has been to buy dosages of six different vaccines (a highly expensive strategy), hoping that one of them works.
But there is a more reliable alternative to this.
The global initiative COVAX is led by a number of world organisations, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), looking to find vaccines and produce 2 billion dosages by the end of 2021. Importantly, they aim to sell potential vaccines at a low cost, supporting poorer countries too. Over 150 countries are part of this scheme, but the actions of the world’s rich countries (buying up the potential vaccine stock for themselves and rejecting the relaxation of IPRs) are undermining these global efforts. COVAX would work much better when coupled with the suspension of IPRs, as it would grant the world freer access to multiple vaccines and allow for much greater collaboration.
Worryingly, however, the USA isn’t even part of COVAX, meaning that neither would they be able to access COVAX-supported vaccines, nor would the world be able to access American vaccines at a fair price. The USA’s absence from COVAX has proved to be highly damaging, reducing funding for it and limiting its effectiveness.
Moreover, not only are western governments at fault, western companies have also harmed our chances of a global vaccine. Many world pharmaceutical companies (known as Big Pharma) are using this pandemic to profiteer at the expense of poorer countries. The American company Moderna, one of the leading vaccine candidates, is an example. Despite receiving $2.48 billion in public money, the company has sold all of their supply to rich nations, to make a profit. They charged $35 per dose for foreign countries, pricing out those in poverty.
The unfair actions of Big Pharma further highlight the need for the India-South Africa proposal. By enacting this proposal, countries can use freely available information to reproduce successful vaccines at much lower prices than those being offered by exploitative pharmaceutical firms.
Wealthy countries argue that Big Pharma companies need patents in order to guarantee high prices to cover their research costs. But this argument ignores the vast amounts of public money that these companies have received to develop vaccines. Charging high prices in addition to receiving subsidies is extortionate and unfair on the poor.
Yet, there is hope for a global solution. A few pharmaceutical companies have bucked this trend, promising lower prices for lower-income countries. Novavax, for example, has struck a deal with India, allowing doses to be made and sold to lower-income countries at lower prices. The actions of a few companies won’t be enough, but combined with the COVAX initiative and the India-South Africa proposal, we can hope for more global collaboration.
What is clear though, is that the relaxation of IPRs can play a crucial role in saving lives across the world by ensuring quicker vaccine development and wider access. If this proposal isn’t accepted, we risk a repeat of the HIV crisis, where western countries refused to relax IPRs for a number of years. When South Africa tried to access cheaper alternatives to patented HIV treatments, they were sued by 39 pharmaceutical companies. As a result, many people in low and middle-income countries couldn’t afford drug treatments at the height of the HIV epidemic, leading to millions of avoidable deaths.
In fact, the prices of HIV/AIDS treatments remains an issue today, with middle-income countries (who still have many people in poverty) often excluded from patent relaxation measures. This means Russia, for example, had to pay 10 times more than lower-income countries for the same treatments. It’s no surprise then, to see that there were 690,000 AIDS-related deaths last year, many of them in such middle-income countries.
We’ve seen the damage that was done in the HIV crisis. We cannot continue to make the same mistakes. It’s time for change. The West must stop prioritising profiteering and nationalism, and instead cooperate to solve this crisis. That starts with supporting the India-South Africa proposal.