Vaccinating the world in a much-improved way

Intellectual property rights are blocking a people’s vaccine

‘The World Trade Organization and WHO to convene major vaccine-producing countries and manufacturers to get agreement on voluntary licensing and technology transfer arrangements for covid-19 vaccines (including through the Medicines Patent Pool). If actions do not occur within three months, a waiver of intellectual property rights under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights should come into force immediately.’ – Excerpt from a recent report by ‘The independent panel for pandemic preparedness and response’ titled ‘Covid-19: make it the last pandemic’

The Economist article ‘Tracking Covid-19 across the world’ updates regularly to provide details on Covid-19 related aspects. Based on the data produced by Airfinity, which is a company that provides data on life sciences, vaccine inequality mainly on the back of vaccine nationalism is one clear message from the data at hand, whereby if the vaccine rollout suffered no inequality, and barring some delays/disruptions, there would already been 2.8 doses for a significant portion of the world’s population at 5.2 billion people. Yet, such inequality is strongly in place, where the current level of inequality could be gauged from, for instance, as pointed out in the article ‘Canada has signed contracts for enough jabs to give every adult 13 doses each, whereas Eastern European countries are expecting to receive just 1.8 doses per adult, on average.’

The Report by ‘The independent panel for pandemic preparedness and response’ titled ‘Covid-19: make it the last pandemic’ pointed out that ‘there are 5.7 billion people in the world aged 16 and over.’ Hence, if there was no vaccine hoarding and in turn inequality, the 2.8 billion doses already produced, would have been more than enough to vaccinate the 5.7 billion people aged 16 and over. In this regard, the Report highlighted the acute level of vaccine inequality as ‘The uneven access to vaccination is one of today’s pre-eminent global challenges.

High-income countries have over 200 percent population coverage of vaccine doses, obtained mainly through bilateral deals with manufacturers to secure existing and future stocks. In many cases low and middle-income countries have been shut out of these arrangements. In the poorest countries, at the time of finalising this report, fewer than 1 percent of people have had a single dose of vaccine. The Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX Facility), rapidly established with the intention of ensuring global, equitable access, is making good progress but has been hampered in that goal by a lack of sufficient funds and by vaccine nationalism, and now, vaccine diplomacy.’

Rich countries and pharmaceutical companies should change their current course of action, whereby among other steps excess vaccines with countries should be transferred to those needing them, and also much needed enhancement in production of vaccines is ensured, and ones that are based on open-source information sharing to be most effective against variants, through temporary removal of IPRs at least during the duration of the pandemic.

On the contrary, up till now many rich countries have hoarded a significant amount of covid-19 vaccine doses than required. For instance, Pakistan has only one dose per adult ordered in 2021 for the entire adult population, whereby it will take the end of 2022 for all the adult population to be vaccinated, given there is excellent administration– a very tall ask given constraints of a third world country’s health sector context– and all the doses ordered get administered in the same year as ordered. On the other hand, rich countries like Canada has more than six times the doses available to inoculate (on two-doses-per-person inoculation basis) its entire adult population in 2021, and has already inoculated 61.4 percent of its adult population, while Pakistan has provided only three percent of its adult population with one done only up till now, and only 0.9 percent of the adults have received two doses.

Similarly, in most of Africa, around tw percent of the adult population have been inoculated. At the same time, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (AfricaCDC) up till 20 May, ‘Coronavirus variants of concern have been found in 37 African countries.’ The source of these variants has been indicated to be from South Africa, the UK, and India. Given the very slow pace of inoculation up till now on the back of severe lack of supply covid-19 vaccines, this keeps a very big chance of these causing lot of new infection rates in not just Africa, but in many parts of the world; and then the longer they keep active the more chances of them mutating its newer and possibly more dangerous variants.

Vaccine nationalism practiced by rich countries in general, and the profit-mindedness of the big pharmaceutical companies– for instance, Lee Fong of The Intercept reportedly indicated ‘Pfizer executives announced that the company’s coronavirus vaccine was projected to bring in $15 billion this year alone from sales, making it one of the highest grossing pharmaceutical products of all time.’– should be weary of the death toll their lack of cooperation could entail for not just the global south, but also possibly on the rich countries themselves due to new dangerous covid-19 variants.

With regard to providing solutions for dealing with the pandemic, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a Report on 19 May, titled ‘A proposal to end the Covid-19 pandemic’, and written by Ruchir Agarwal, and Gita Gopinath, whereby it provided some important proposals ‘The proposal targets: (1) vaccinating at least 40 percent of the population in all countries by the end of 2021 and at least 60 percent by the first half of 2022, (2) tracking and insuring against downside risks, and (3) ensuring widespread testing and tracing, maintaining adequate stocks of therapeutics, and enforcing public health measures in places where vaccine coverage is low.’ Moreover, the IMF pointed out that ‘The benefits of such measures at about $9 trillion far outweigh the costs which are estimated to be around $50 billion– of which $35 billion should be paid by grants from donors and the residual by national governments potentially with the support of concessional financing from bilateral and multilateral agencies.’

Having said that, the writer could not find in the Report any recommendation/proposal that intellectual property rights (IPRs) should be temporarily suspended for the duration of the pandemic at least, which is indeed one of the most important proposals not mentioned. What the writer could find in the Report instead was the IMF encouraging a ‘voluntary licensing and sharing of intellectual property rights’, and in this regard indicated ‘Here we allocate about $1 billion, half of it in terms of grant financing, to encourage cross-border deals to increase regional capacity of vaccines in developing countries.’ It is hoped IMF will strongly recommend suspension of IPRs to both rich countries, pharmaceutical companies, and the World Trade Organization, as this is one of the key steps to reach much-needed enhanced production at the earliest possible, and in reaching a ‘people’s vaccine’ based on open-source information sharing, so that most powerful against variants.

Hence, the world should come together at the earliest, and rich countries and pharmaceutical companies should change their current course of action, whereby among other steps excess vaccines with countries should be transferred to those needing them, and also much needed enhancement in production of vaccines is ensured, and ones that are based on open-source information sharing to be most effective against variants, through temporary removal of IPRs at least during the duration of the pandemic.

Dr Omer Javed
Dr Omer Javed
The writer holds PhD in Economics degree from the University of Barcelona, and previously worked at International Monetary Fund.Prior to this, he did MSc. in Economics from the University of York (United Kingdom), and worked at the Ministry of Economic Affairs & Statistics (Pakistan), among other places. He is author of Springer published book (2016) ‘The economic impact of International Monetary Fund programmes: institutional quality, macroeconomic stabilization and economic growth’.He tweets @omerjaved7

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