Moderna Inc. announced its Covid-19 vaccine barely a week after Pfizer and BioNTech’s announcement. In a manner reminiscent of the Cold War rivalry, Russia also announced its Sputnik V vaccine on the same day. These are welcome developments which provide a light in the tunnel of the pandemic, but everybody across the world must have access to the Covid-19 vaccines.
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For this light to be real for humankind, these breakthroughs must not be treated as private property of the vaccine developers. Everybody across the world must have access to the Covid-19 vaccines.
It is impossible for any one company to provide enough vaccines for the global population. “Vaccine developers must openly share their intellectual property, technology and know-how. Only this will enable the maximum number of vaccine doses to be produced as quickly as possible.”
A handful of these countries have already grabbed more than half of the Covid-19 vaccines to be produced.
Governments across the world have argued throughout the pandemic that we are all in the same boat. So, taking steps to ensure Covid-19 vaccines are free and universally accessible would seem like the simple and straightforward thing to do. But that is not the case.
Pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer and Moderna are in it for the money. Moderna shares on the stock exchange increased by 290% during the year, as it commenced work on Covid-19 candidate vaccines. Wealthy and powerful countries are able and ready to pay, swelling the purse of Moderna and other big pharmaceuticals’ investors. They could raise ethical questions regarding putting wealth before health amidst a global health crisis. But they have chosen not to do so. A handful of these countries have already grabbed more than half of the Covid-19 vaccines to be produced, while they were going through trials.
The World Health Assembly passed a Covid-19 response resolution in May, where world leaders called for: “the universal, timely and equitable access to and fair distribution of all quality, safe, efficacious and affordable essential health technologies and products including their components and precursors required in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic as a global priority”.
But the Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A), and its COVAX pillar which is meant to ensure the pooling together of procurement of eventual Covid-19 vaccines for equitable distribution, are voluntary programmes. The pharmaceutical industry has ignored it and world leaders who verbally committed to it have acted contrary to the spirit and letters of COVAX and ACT-A.
There will not be enough vaccines to cover the world’s population until 2024.
Governments of rich countries are making it impossible for countries in the Global South to be able to procure Covid-19 vaccines for their populations. Apart from the fact that most low-income countries might not be able to afford procurement costs, with the advance market commitments reached with vaccine developers, there is just not enough to go round. Except the intellectual property rights to Covid-19 vaccines are waived, and resources pulled together to ensure no country is left behind “there will not be enough vaccines to cover the world’s population until 2024.”
Covid-19 vaccines are and must be considered as public goods and not as commodities for generating profit. The corporation received an award of up to $955 million from the government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which amounts to “100 percent of the allowable costs incurred by the Company for conducting the program described in the BARDA contract.” Moderna’s vaccine was also co-developed with the United States’ National Institutes of Health (NIH).
As Zain Rizvi of Public Citizen said in June while the vaccine was at trial stages; "the vaccine would not exist without the intellectual contributions of federal scientists." And earlier in October, Mordena publicly declared that it would “not enforce” its patent rights. It must be made to walk its talk. And all other vaccine developers have to be made to waive their intellectual property rights.
The invaluable words of Jonas Salk who developed the first successful polio vaccines must be our watchword in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. In 1952, he was asked the question “who owns the patent on this vaccine?” His response was unambiguously clear; “the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
Covid-19 vaccines must be made available to everybody in every country and free of charge.
Healthcare is a fundamental human right. In the current historic period, this means that Covid-19 vaccines must be made available to everybody in every country and free of charge. This will not just happen as we can see from the unfolding situation. We must fight for it. PSI and other civil society organisations as well as UN AIDS are committed to campaigning for a People’s Vaccine.
Several heads of governments and other figures of note in the Global South have subscribed to the position of the People’s Vaccine Alliance. But they alone cannot win this fight. Trade unions, civil society organisations, academics and all well-meaning people across the world must stand up and speak with one voice for the waiver of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines and the global pooling of resources together to ensure that all countries can make these vaccines available to everybody, free of charge.
Pfizer and BioNTech announced the success of their vaccine candidate against Covid-19 in a first interim analysis from their phase 3 study in the second week of November. PSI calls for the waiver of intellectual property rights as put forward to the WTO by the governments of South Africa and India.