The United States has initiated lifting patent protections on COVID-19 vaccines in a move sure to motivate the pharmaceuticals, governments and international organizations to unite in aiding countries that are behind in vaccinations.
It has already been a year since U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres proclaimed that any COVID-19 vaccine must be a “global public good.” Now, 3.2 million deaths later, there is still no such thing. But at last, a door has been opened by the Joe Biden administration, which has established strict national production goals and lifted all intellectual property protections on vaccines for the virus.
It does so with good reason, since global pandemic management continues to slip.
The mandatory license system maintained by the World Trade Organization to oversee vaccine production in developing countries is no longer enough, nor is the World Health Organization’s COVAX program for countries that lack the means to produce their own vaccines. Worst of all is India, known as the “world’s pharmacy” because of its drug production but which cannot inoculate its own population. All this suggests that purely commercial thinking such as that proposed by the WTO with its attendant regulations does not work, and so another kind of thinking must prevail.
We must not bask in otherworldliness, though, since lifting patent protections by itself does not solve the problem. The development and production of a vaccine is an immense challenge. The pharmaceutical companies estimate that 100 ingredients are needed and are hard to find, quality control is also difficult and production centers cannot be easily constructed. The pharmaceuticals emphasize these concerns, which certainly require attention.
The pharmaceuticals also indicate that such an effort will come too late. Need we repeat that such appeals were made by India and South Africa, two of the hardest hit countries, last October, so now seven valuable months have been lost?
Taking the stance that a new strategy is too complex is not a valid argument, so the European Union must join forces with the U.S. The disintegrating situation in India and the severity of the virus’ mutations show that mutual interest outweighs the profits of Big Pharma. It is more than time for the production countries and the international organizations, especially the WTO, to work hand in hand to attack this problem on a global scale. Not doing so will be not only a humanitarian failure, but an economic one.