The row over the EU introducing vaccine export controls has occluded its rejection of a temporary waiver on intellectual property rights.
As we approach the anniversary of the pandemic’s declaration by the World Health Organization, health and care systems around the world are being rocked by a second wave of cases, dwarfing the first surge last spring.
In the initial stages of the pandemic, the fear of the impact on national populations led to more than 100 export controls around the world for crucial medicines and medical equipment. Understandably, governments moved to protect their own citizens but the lack of co-ordination resulted in an inefficient distribution of these vital supplies, hindering global capacity to stem surges at their root.
Responding to such trade controls within the European Union, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, told the European Parliament last March that ‘a crisis without borders cannot be resolved by putting barriers between us’.
Against this experience, the commission’s announcement on January 29th of new export controls on vaccines surprised many around the world—drawing criticism from key allies, the WHO and indeed von der Leyen’s predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker. While the commission put this down to a breach of contract obligations, the resounding impression given was of putting European citizens first in the scramble to secure vaccines, when the global nature of the pandemic meant nation-first approaches were doomed to fail.
Yet the idea that the EU was prioritising access for its own citizens was itself flawed, since alongside wealthy individual states, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia, it continues to block a temporary waiver on intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, which is backed by most members of the World Trade Organization. Such a waiver would make the patents, industrial designs and trade secrets used to make Covid-19 vaccines global public goods—meaning more vaccines to distribute at less cost to public coffers around the world.
UNICEF figures reveal that only 43 per cent of reported Covid-19 vaccine production capacity is currently being used for the approved vaccines. According to the People’s Vaccine campaign, the three biggest manufacturers in the world are only producing vaccines for about 1.5 per cent of the global population—much less than their total capacity if patents did not stand in the way.
Last week, the Danish company Bavarian Nordic offered to manufacture up to 240 million vaccines in its newly-built facilities but this offer is yet to be taken up by any of the major vaccine companies. While wealthy countries have bought up most of the first stocks of viable vaccine candidates, there is also untapped production potential across different regions, with 20 more vaccine manufacturers in India alone.
At the current rate of vaccination, it will take seven years for enough of the world to be vaccinated to prevent further transmission. Seven years is a long time for the virus to mutate and build resistance to currently viable vaccinations—a risk recently highlighted by the emergence of new strains. With the looming risk of reinfection with a more deadly or contagious version of the virus, it is paramount that every tool at our disposal is oriented to producing enough vaccines to eradicate it swiftly everywhere.
Artificial rationing is what is driving vaccine nationalism, yet the EU again blocked the waiver at the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Council meeting at the WTO last Thursday, claiming that private patents were needed to encourage innovation. As others have pointed out, however, much of the industry’s innovation has been predicated on decades of public support for research and development. Indeed, governments around the world have invested €88.3 billion in Covid-19 vaccine development so far.
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For citizens of countries with the fiscal space to support such investments, this amounts to paying for the vaccine three times: when their government supported vaccine development, when it bought stocks and when it funds the COVAX facility intended to secure vaccines for poorer countries pushed out of the race. While the EU and other wealthy regions have borne the brunt of the public-health challenge, with the vast majority of cases and deaths, a recent study has found that failing to vaccinate people in low-income countries will have the worst economic impact on wealthy economies.
A waiver on intellectual property would see a drastic decrease in the cost of vaccination for all governments, with more regional production unleashed across the world. This is not simply a case of high-income countries versus low-income but of patent monopolies, propped up by a few WTO members, versus the safety of everyone.
The EU and others blocking the waiver have chosen to back these pharmaceutical-company monopolies over their own public health and any hope of a rapid, global vaccination programme. The same companies shunned the voluntary Covid-19 Technology Access Pool launched by the WHO early in the pandemic—the head of Pfizer calling the initiative ‘nonsense’—while making billions in profit from Covid-19 vaccines.
Keeping the patents of Covid-19 vaccines secret offers no demonstrable public benefit to the global pandemic effort. Instead, it is leading to chauvinistic policy choices which erode co-operation and trust and prolong the pandemic for everyone.