The Global Clamour for Ending Vaccine Inequalities Must Go Beyond Just the IP Issue

The COVID-19 crisis has made it increasingly clear that the corporate-led world neither values human life nor the challenges that we face.

Bowing to pressure from fellow Democrats and amidst rising global clamour for sharing resources, technology and perhaps most importantly, the much-needed technical know-how with the developing world to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the US President Joe Biden finally agreed to support patent waiver for vaccines at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

A proposal jointly moved by India and South Africa is being discussed at the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) of WTO since October 2, 2020, demanding waiver of patent rights to ramp up local production of vaccines, medicines, testing kits and equipment to deal with the pandemic. The petition is now being co-sponsored by more than 100 developing and least developed countries.

Conveying the decision, the US trade representative Katherine Tai said on May 5, “This is a global health crisis, and extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”

The decision was wholeheartedly welcomed by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Describing the decision as “historic”, Ghebreyesus tweeted, “this is a monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19.”

There is a long way to go before any real benefits, if finally agreed to by the developed nations consensually, accrue to the developing countries, where the pandemic is presently playing havoc. India, the worst affected country, is losing thousands of precious lives on a daily basis, as only 9.8% of its population has received one dose and 2.5% is fully vaccinated.

A logo is pictured outside the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters next to a red traffic light in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo: Denis Balibouse via Reuters.

If one carefully reads the US statement, the waiver is limited to vaccines and not for the production of testing kits, medicines and personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to effectively deal with all aspects of the pandemic. Further, even this waiver requires consensus among the 164 members of the WTO. This was made abundantly clear by Tai, who said “those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution [WTO] and the complexity of the issues involved”.

Pharma industry raises discordant voice

Already, discordant voices are being heard from those countries where the pharma industry is based. Opposing the US move, a spokeswoman of German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “the protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in future”. It is to be noted that Pfizer’s vaccine partner BioNTech SE is based in Germany. Similarly, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president said that the EU was “ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner”, but refused to endorse Biden’s plan.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talking to French President Emmanuel Macron during a joint video conference in the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, May 18, 2020. Photo: Bundesregierung/Sandra Steins/Handout via Reuters

The European Union (EU) remain unmoved despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging the EU Council to support the joint Indian-South African proposal at the WTO. He was virtually addressing the EU Council meeting being held at Porto, Portugal, on May 8 as a special invitee. An unrelenting Angela Merkel reiterated, “I don’t believe that releasing patents is the solution to provide vaccines for more people.” von der Leyen also remained evasive and only added that the EU was ready to discuss any proposal to address the crisis in an “effective and pragmatic” manner. For those who understand the nuances of the diplomatic world, this is an indication that the waiver will not be endorsed.

Not ready to accept a dip in profits, the pharma industry is also up in arms against the proposed waiver and instead wants rich nations to share the doses with poor countries. Soon after the US announcement, the pharma industry warned that such a move could “disrupt a fragile supply chain”. The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associates further added that “waiving intellectual property rights for COVID vaccines would invite new manufacturers that lack essential knowhow to crowd out established contractors. It would also set a bad precedent”.

In fact, in the first three months of this year, Pfizer had a pre-tax profit of $900 million and by the end of this year, it expects to garner $26 billion in total revenue from the vaccine. Out of the 2.5 billion vaccine doses that Pfizer plans to produce this year, the company has pledged to send up to 40 million doses – just 2% – to the global COVAX programme launched by the WHO for the benefit of poor countries. Similarly, Moderna plans to contribute about 34 million doses of the 800 million or 1 billion doses it proposes to produce this year.

Moderna, AstraZeneca and Pfizer. Photos: Reuters Illustration: The Wire

It may be mentioned that COVAX is the vaccine pillar of the “Access to COVID-19 Tools – Accelerator” (ACT-Accelerator) programme of the WHO. The ACT-Accelerator programme is meant for rapid development of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutic tools and their equitable access across the globe.

Meanwhile, Ghebreyesus appealed to the countries and companies that control the resources to share vaccine doses to protect those who are at most-risk and not those who are most-rich. He was referring to the devastating situation in India. He also sought funds to the tune of $19 billion to effectively run the programme this year. M.C. Ramaphosa, president of South Africa and co-chair of the facilitation council for the ACT-Accelerator programme, went a step further, warning that “vaccine nationalism seriously threatens the global recovery from the pandemic and is deepening inequalities”.

It is a reality that richer nations have significant existing research and development infrastructure and have successfully fast-paced vaccine development. They now want to use it as a tool to maintain global economic supremacy. Unfortunately, these nations don’t have the foresight to realise that the world can only be safe when everyone (regardless of race, religion, nationality, and gender) is safe from this constantly mutating enemy. Progressive US Senator Bernie Sanders had also warned that it was in the US’s own interest to ensure as many people were vaccinated as quickly as possible, to limit the chance of virus mutations.

Bill Gates also opposes IP waiver

Endorsing the pharma corporate views, Bill Gates, the fourth richest man in the world with a net worth of $129.2 billion, responded with a blunt no, when questioned on Sky News about his views on sharing the COVID-19 vaccine recipe with developing countries. This, of course, was expected from someone whose empire rests on the foundation of intellectual property rights. Bill Gates said vaccinations should first be administered in the developed world and then “within three or four months the vaccine allocation will be getting to all the countries that have the very severe pandemic”. In a manner of speaking, this equates to the rich countries throwing left-overs to the poor ones after enjoying a timely and scrumptious meal for themselves.

Why then, is Prime Minister Modi appeasing these very countries, their corporates and institutions controlled by them like the WTO and the International Monetary Fund, by enacting the farm and labour laws that have put the livelihoods of millions of Indians at peril? Is it not time for the government to repeal these laws so that farmers could safely go back home?

Blocking Twitter accounts would neither help improve the poor optics of the government’s handling of the pandemic nor would it mitigate the public health catastrophe unfolding in India. It certainly will not help to mask the stark reality that the corporate-led world has failed the people that inhabit this planet. It is not only a lesson for India but for all those countries who have petitioned the WTO, that the present world order values neither human life nor the serious challenges posed by the climate crisis.

Avinash Mohananey is a retired officer of the Indian Police Service and the Intelligence Bureau.