With Vaccine Nationalism, COVID Gets Its Way

Mar 6 , 2021
By Hileleule G. Tesfaye

Many of us remember the news of the first COVID-19 vaccine being announced. We saw it as the light at the end of the tunnel. We hoped that in no time, life would get back to normal. We were naive.

Last year, as scientists worked around the clock to develop vaccines for the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, officials from developed countries were queuing up to promise equal access. But gradually and surely, hope turned into resentment as it became clear that the vaccines would first only be available to the Global North, with little thought for equitable distribution.

About a quarter of a billion doses have been administered across the world by March 1, 2021. The vast majority of vaccines have gone to a few developed nations that only account for 10pc of the global population. They are likely to achieve "widespread vaccination coverage" by late 2021. Still, the world's poorest countries will not hit that same benchmark until 2023, if at all, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Was this the equity promised?

Tedros Adhanom (PhD), director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), has described the predicament as a “catastrophic moral failure.” Vaccine nationalism has robbed lower-income nations of the promised fair distribution. Behind it all is the intellectual property rights of big pharmaceutical companies that prohibit other manufacturers from producing the vaccines. Developing countries are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They cannot purchase vaccines because of scarcity, thus the high price of buying it, and they cannot manufacture them because of intellectual property prohibition.

This issue has prompted India and South Africa to approach the World Trade Organisation (WTO), asking for parts of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement (TRIPS) to be waived. They stated a temporary suspension of specific 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, the proposal was strongly opposed by developed nations such as the United States and the European Union. They insisted the waiver would not address vaccine scarcity and instead halt incentives for innovation and make pharmaceutical companies unable to keep up with a mutating virus. They added that scarcity could be fixed through licensing and expanding manufacturing capacity.

Supporters of the waiver, mostly developing, least-developed countries and NGOs, believe that depending on a few pharmaceutical companies to produce vaccines for the whole world is absurd. Every manufacturing capacity must be exploited, and the vaccine shortage is "artificial" since the companies have only granted production licenses to a small number of firms.

The WTO talks take place as wealthy countries corner billions of COVID-19 shots while leaving developing countries struggling for supplies. For instance, Canada has enough shots to vaccinate its citizens five times over.

Facing such scarcity, the only way to find vaccines seems to be to manufacture them. Although some condescendingly argue that an IP waiver will not translate into the transfer of know-how and technology, this is doable. They forget that developing nations are home to many vaccine companies with vast manufacturing capacity. The Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network (DCVMN) already produces billions of vaccines for anthrax and cholera.

One promising 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. Unfortunately, no patent-holding drug maker has signed up yet. There is also the WHO-backed COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) facility that aims to ensure fair global access to Coronavirus vaccines. It plans to distribute two billion doses by the end of 2021 but has yet to make meaningful headway.

Under the status quo, it is apparent that vaccines cannot be made quickly or cheaply enough to meet global demand. Developed nations and their pharmaceutical giants have been unwilling to take this step, clinging instead to an economic order that disadvantages developing countries and threatens to prolong the pandemic.

This is not the first time intellectual property became a tool to deny access to life-saving medicine. It contributed to a 10-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 intellectual property be protected in the middle of a devastating pandemic, putting profit before lives?

Ironically, the consequences of vaccine inequality will not be confined to developing countries. The longer the virus is allowed to continue in a context of patchy herd immunity, the greater the chance of mutations that could render the vaccines already administered less effective. A study has already found that the global economy stands to lose 9.2 trillion dollars if the Global South does not get access to COVID-19 vaccines, according to the International Chamber of Commerce.

The likelihood that this will be the case is vast. Take Ethiopia. Only nine million doses have been secured through the COVAX facility, according to Lia Tadesse (MD), minister of Health. By the end of the year, the Ministry hopes to vaccinate at least a fifth of the population – far from the required amount to reach herd immunity. This fact is all the more reason for the country to urgently back the proposal tabled at WTO and join forces with other countries to advocate for the equitable distribution of vaccines.

The waiver proposal's fate is unknown with the next TRIPS session meeting scheduled for March 10 and 11. There are signs of despair. WTO decisions must pass by consensus, making the passage of the proposal formidable as developed countries are doubling down on their objection by restricting vaccine exports and hoarding supplies. But there is hope that the new Director-General of WTO, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will, will support the proposal.

For a virus that knows no boundary, there should be international solidarity. If we fail to achieve this, the virus will not only have taken many lives. It will also expose that greed outweighs our sense of humanity.

PUBLISHED ON Mar 06,2021 [ VOL 21 , NO 1088]

Hileleule G. Tesfaye is a consultant and attorney at law. He can be reached at hileleule@gmail.com.

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