Agnee Ghosh is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata, India.
My whole family tested positive for COVID-19 at the end of April. Phones keep ringing as concerned relatives reach out every day to ask if we are okay. My parents read aloud depressing news about the collapse of India’s health care system, which is overwhelmed with desperately sick patients and lacking essential supplies. As the drama is swirling around us, my frustration is growing that a common sense way out of this crisis is being blocked by Western countries such as Canada.
The U.S. administration is currently considering the merits of waiving intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines to give other companies the ability to produce vaccines. In October, India and South Africa submitted a joint petition to the World Trade Organization requesting a temporary suspension of rules under the 1995 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). More than 100 nations have come forward to support the request for the waiver. But a small group of rich nations – the U.S., the European Union, the U.K., and Canada among them – continue to block the move.
It is concerning that these countries are hesitant to approve of the waiver considering that they have already secured the majority of available vaccines and reports suggest that the stocks that they hold far exceed the amount required to inoculate the whole of their populations. But for the rest of the world, mass immunization remains a distant dream. In India, 11 doses have been given out per 100 people, while in the U.S., 74 doses have been given out per 100 people. Reports suggest that most developing countries will have to wait till 2024 to achieve widespread vaccination.
To understand the hesitancy of a few developed countries to the waiver, we must first understand the idea behind patent protection. The deep-rooted economic theory suggests that patents encourage innovation by giving the inventor protection from unfair competition for a limited time. This allows them to earn from their investment and protect their innovation from imitation.
Pharmaceutical companies typically spend millions of dollars and an average of 10 to 12 years of research and development and clinical trials to get life-saving drugs to the market. If Big Pharma cannot make profits off their investment, they will have no incentive to invest in the development of new drugs in the future.
In most countries, patent protection is offered for about 20 years, after which generic companies can move into the market to produce cheaper biosimilars of those drugs. While it is necessary to foster innovation in science through patent protection, it is often misused by pharmaceutical companies to charge inflated prices. This restricts the access of these medicines to low- and middle-income countries that cannot afford them.
But we are in the middle of a global health emergency. About 70 per cent of the world needs to be vaccinated to stop the pandemic. If we do the math, then more than five billion people need the vaccine. With two doses each, this amounts to 10 billion doses of vaccines. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the WTO director-general, said the world has the capacity to produce 3.5 billion doses of vaccines in a year, but more is needed.
Half the doses administered so far have been in Europe and North America. In contrast, poorer nations, which account for 80 per cent of the global population, have access to less than one-third of the available doses.
The COVID-19 global pandemic is the worst health crisis in the last century. Considering the destruction caused by the virus, it certainly qualifies as an “exceptional circumstance” as defined under Articles IX.3 and IX.4 of the WTO Agreement.
Even now, as India is witnessing a second wave, equity is not a big part of the global policy tackling COVID-19. We have seen a rise in vaccine nationalism, but if we listen to scientists, there is no way COVID-19 can be brought under control unless all nations have equitable access to vaccines, drugs and testing kits.
We know now that quick and efficient vaccination is the surest way to achieve global herd immunity against the virus. If the waiver is approved, countries will be able to facilitate a free exchange of ideas and technology concerning the production of vaccines. It’s true that it could lead to some erosion of profits for pharmaceutical companies based in wealthy nations. But it would result in fewer families like mine getting hit with COVID-19, which would benefit countries like India, and prevent new surges around the world in the years to come.