Recently, Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of UN, tweeted that “the richest countries and regions are getting vaccinated more than 30 times faster than those with the lowest incomes. This vaccination gap is not just unfair; it threatens everyone.”
Along similar lines, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of WHO, described the ongoing vaccine crisis as “a scandalous inequity” where just 10 countries have received 75% of all vaccines administered so far, while 0.3% have gone to lower-income nations, with the African continent receiving just 1%.
As a child, like many other children my age, I believed that United Nations is a global authority that runs the world. Sadly, I was completely wrong. With its limited powers, the UN can only plead to the world to do the right thing and vaccinate everyone. We, the human race, despite our tremendous achievements, have let ourselves down when it comes to Covid vaccinations across the globe.
The only global effort we have now is WHO’s Covax, a vaccine pooling programme for poorer countries. Limited in scope, it already faces shortages. Even in the best case, it would have provided vaccines to cover only 20% of a nation’s population, far below herd immunity levels. Instead, many countries have received zero doses. A key dependence was on Serum Institute of India, now unable to give vaccines to Covax because of India’s needs. It’s a messy situation. The results are catastrophic.
Vaccine deficient countries continue to face Covid outbreaks and deaths, even as the US, UK and Israel have vaccinated nearly half their population and seen cases drop over 90% from peak levels. Life is almost back to normal there.
Sure, some blame lies on the individual countries for not sourcing vaccines well in time. India for instance, housing one-sixth of humanity, could have done a lot better. In 2020 itself, we could have pre-ordered the promising vaccine candidates. We didn’t. We are suffering badly for it.
However, when you have nearly 100 countries with no vaccines, while a handful have nearly all the supply, something seems terribly wrong at the global, all of humanity level. Ultimately, we are all members of the human race. To say some deserve to live because they have a certain passport, while others don’t, speaks terribly about our species. It’s vaccine apartheid.
A handful of big pharma companies, along with a few proactive governments invested in research and came up with various Covid vaccines. The relatively small ecosystem of players, many of them private, now holds the key to solving this global crisis. Big pharma invented the vaccines. Full respect and credit to them for that. It is their IP. They deserve rewards for it.
However, were these vaccines luxury products, made only for the rich countries? Imagine if the polio or smallpox vaccine was only given to rich nations. Would you still respect the inventors and investors as much?
Of course the current vaccine supply issues can’t just be blamed on big pharma companies. Many governments are guilty of red-tapism or vaccine nationalism or a failure to grasp the urgency of the situation. UN and WHO are to blame for underestimating the need; they did little to partner with vaccine candidates in 2020. Even today, their Covax programme is aid-oriented rather than targeted towards big pharma companies, which is what is needed to make them give up their patents and fix the shortages.
The clear solution to this crisis is to scale up manufacture of vaccines. This requires vaccine IP holding big pharmas to release the patents. This won’t happen with moral appeals, which will only waste time. There’s a need to pay the IP holders a fair price, as that’s the capitalist incentive structure under which they operate. Fortunately, the world can pay this price. Given the alternative economic costs of lockdowns, distressed healthcare systems, and deaths, any country would and should be willing to pay a reasonable market price for vaccines.
Together the UN, WHO, WTO and world leaders need to determine the fair compensation for patent release. This amount can then be paid for by all countries, based on their population and maybe with some consideration for per capita GDP. Once we have the patents, we can step up manufacturing in several plants all over the world, adding to vaccine supply.
Is it morally wrong for big pharma to expect to make a lot of money in such times? We don’t have time to discuss morality issues. We just need to get the vaccination going. In any case, the amounts involved would be no more than a few dollars a person, or a few percentage points of a nation’s GDP, possibly a one-time hit to the fiscal deficit.
The human race needs to get its act together now, else the world would not be vaccinated for the next three years. Rich countries are fooling themselves if they feel they can ride out the pandemic by just vaccinating themselves. Variants from unvaccinated populations are a real risk, even to rich, already vaccinated countries.
And WHO needs a better plan than Covax. Let it not just be a token exercise for rich countries to look good. Poor countries can also pay for the vaccine and they should. Big pharma can get paid for inventing these amazing vaccines. The world can scale up and manufacture more vaccines at more speed. The human race owes it to itself to do this right. Let’s get the world vaccinated, fast.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
END OF ARTICLE