CAN VACCINE DIPLOMACY SAVE MILLIONS OF LIVES?

The pandemic is many things but being over is not one of them. As we continue to battle novel variants and second waves with exhausted healthcare systems, there is a common consensus amongst world leaders and scientists alike that no one is safe until everyone is vaccinated. However, what sounds simple in theory is not so simple in practice, and there is a struggle to amp up inoculation rates in an equitable manner. In fact, a study found that advanced nations such as the United States had attained three times the required vaccine doses by mid-February while 130 nations were ‘yet to administer a single dose’.


Hands off my property!

A particularly large hurdle to mass vaccination resides within the sphere of intellectual property rights, which are commonly protected by patents. In essence, patent laws are set with the intention of rewarding new discoveries by allowing the creator to capitalise on them in a more lucrative manner. While this is a good idea in normal times, Covid-19 has created unprecedented challenges globally and hard-hit countries like India and South Africa as well as left-wing activists are pushing for a waiver. The intention is to make it easier to mass produce vaccines while keeping the cost low so that widespread distribution is possible.

So, why don’t we have a global patent waiver yet?

The main argument is that a TRIPS waiver would be bad for innovation. In the words of Geoffrey Porges, an analyst at SVB Leernik ‘it would be intensively counterproductive, in the extreme, because what it would say to the industry is: “Don’t work on anything that we really care about, because if you do, we’re just going to take it away from you” ‘. But this is a rather pessimistic and morally reprehensible world view. Yes, lifting the patent would hurt the fiscal bottom line of pharmaceutical companies, but nothing is being ‘taken away’ when compared to the magnitude of the loss of human life.

Another point of contention is that a patent waiver, by itself, is not enough to solve problems in the vaccine supply chain. Sharon Castillo, a Pfizer spokeswoman stated that ‘We [Pfizer] just think it’s unrealistic to think that a waiver will facilitate ramping up so quickly as to address the supply issue’. However, patents don’t only restrict the production of generic copycats, they also block the creation of alternative options by inducing a fear of infringement lawsuits. A further issue is that the current waiver, proposed and backed by hundreds of countries, also includes the potential to create other medical supplies based on the same technology. The world recognises and applauds companies like Pfizer and Moderna who brought mRNA technology to the forefront; but as second and third waves of the virus hit already crippled healthcare systems, we must keep asking pharmaceutical companies to lead by example.

What is the solution?

To put it simply, giving the waiver the green light would be a massive step forward and is not as impossible as it seems. Recently, with the right kind of public pressure, the United States came out in support of the legislation:

‘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’

— Katherine Tai, representative to the World Trade Organisation.

Apart from the waiver, there also needs to be a focus on technology sharing. Covid-19 has forced the world to look beyond the confines of widely available equipment and utilise the niche. Companies need to come forth in an act of true altruism, ensuring that other countries have everything they need to ramp up their vaccine production.

These are big asks, especially from an industry that is exceptionally protective of intellectual property. However, no amount of damage to profits will ever come close to justifying the numerous roadblocks that make it almost impossible for millions of people to get potentially life-saving medicine.