By Hileleule G. Tesfaye
Do you remember when the first COVID 19 vaccine was announced? Of course, you do. We all saw it as the light at the end of the tunnel. We even hoped for our parents to get the vaccine in time. We were so naive.
Last year, as scientists worked around the clock to develop COVID-19 vaccines, officials from developed countries were queuing up to promise equal access. In developing countries, hope turned quickly into resentment, as it became clear that vaccines would first be only available to the global north, with little thought to equitable distribution.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of February 20, more than 200-million vaccine doses had been administered worldwide. However, the vast majority of vaccines were administered in a few developed nations who only account for 10 percent of the global population. Research conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit shows developed nations are likely to achieve “widespread vaccination coverage” by late 2021, but the world’s poorest countries will not hit that same benchmark until 2023, if at all. Was this the equity promised?
WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the predicament as a “Catastrophic moral failure”.
Vaccine nationalism has been indicated as the cause of inequality. However, many argue the real problem is the intellectual property rights of big pharmaceutical companies which prohibit other manufacturers from producing the vaccines. Developing nations are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They unable to purchase vaccines because of scarcity and cannot manufacture them because of intellectual property prohibition.
This issue prompted India and South Africa to approach World Trade Organization (WTO), calling on it to waive parts of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement (TRIPS). They stated a temporary suspension of certain intellectual property (IP) rights such as patents would ensure “timely access to affordable vaccines and other medical products essential to combat COVID-19”.
During the TRIPS Council meeting on February 4, the proposal was strongly opposed by developed nations headed by the USA and EU. They insisted the waiver would not address vaccine scarcity, and would rather halt incentives for innovation and make pharmaceutical companies unable to keep up with a mutating virus. They added scarcity could be fixed through licensing and expanding manufacturing capacity.
Supporters of the waiver, which include many developing and least-developed countries and NGOs, say depending on a few pharmaceutical companies to produce vaccines for the whole world is absurd, and affirm that every manufacturing capacity must be exploited. They claim the vaccine shortage is “artificial” since the companies have only granted production licenses to a small number of firms. They add that the underlying intention of these companies is perpetuating monopoly through IP rights.
The WTO talks are taking place as some wealthy countries face criticism for cornering billions of COVID shots while leaving poor countries struggling for supplies.
For example, Canada has secured enough shots to vaccinate its citizens six times.
Facing such scarcity, the only way to find vaccines seems like to manufacture them. Here developed nations argue an IP waiver doesn’t transfer the all-important know-how and technology to make it. This is as condescending as it is untrue. There any many vaccine companies with manufacturing capacity, hundreds of companies in India alone. There is also the Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network (DCVMN) that is already producing billions of vaccines for other diseases.
One possible avenue is the WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), which was meant to become a source for open-access knowledge on COVID-19 science and technology. However, as yet, not a single patent-holding drug maker has agreed to sign up. There is also the WHO-backed COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) facility, that aims to ensure fair global access to coronavirus vaccines. The facility plans to distribute 2 billion doses by the end of 2021 but has struggled to gain traction.
Under the status quo, it is apparent that vaccines cannot be made quickly or cheaply enough to meet global demand. I agree that the proposed temporary waiver is necessary for an urgent scale-up in vaccine productions. However, developed nations and their pharmaceutical giants have been unwilling to take this step, clinging instead to a greedy, quasi-colonial economic order that disadvantages poor countries-and threatens to prolong the pandemic. It is difficult not to acknowledge this plight for its apartheid nature and imperialist undertone.
This is not the first-time intellectual property became a tool to deny access to life-saving medicine. It contributed to a ten-year delay in access to HIV medicines for people in developing countries, leading to millions of unnecessary deaths. Two decades later, a similar script is being played out by the same set of actors. Should we set a precedent that intellectual property should be protected in the middle of a devastating pandemic, putting profit before lives?
The ironic reality is that the impacts of vaccine inequality will not be confined to developing countries. Experts say, the longer the virus is allowed to continue in a context of patchy immunity, the greater the chance of mutations that could render the vaccines already administered, less effective or ineffective. Furthermore, a study commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce predicts “the global economy stands to lose $9.2 trillion if the global south doesn’t have access to COVID-19 vaccines”.
In Ethiopia, the Ministry of Health Dr. Lia Tadesse recently stated that they have secured 9 million doses through the COVAX facility. This is far from the required amount to reach herd immunity. Additionally, the acquired vaccines are funded by aid and loans further pushing the country into a debt trap. Ethiopia must urgently back the proposal tabled at WTO and join forces with other countries to advocate for the equitable distribution of vaccines.
The fate of the waiver proposal is unknown with the next TRIPS Council meeting scheduled for March 10. There are signs of despair but also hope. Developed countries are doubling down on their objection to the waiver by restricting vaccine exports and hoarding supplies. China and Russia have also remained silent on the issue. There is also hope that the new Director-General of WTO Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will support and advocate for the proposal.
The fact WTO decisions must pass by consensus remains a formidable challenge for the proposal but also an opportunity for unity. For a virus that knows no boundary, our response should be one based on international solidarity. If we fail to achieve this, the virus will not only have taken so many lives but will also expose that our greed outweighs our sense of humanity.
Hileleule G. Tesfaye is A Legal practitioner and master’s student at Center for Development Research, University of Western Cape. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org