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How to help poorer countries kick COVID-19 vaccination efforts into high gear

Waiving patent rights to life-saving vaccines is an extraordinary, but necessary, step to ending the worldwide pandemic.

A sign announcing a shortage of COVID-19 vaccine hangs on the gate of a vaccination center in Mumbai, India on April 8, 2021. India is leading an effort to waive vaccine patent protections so more countries can manufacture the vaccine themselves.
A sign announcing a shortage of COVID-19 vaccine hangs on the gate of a vaccination center in Mumbai, India on April 8, 2021. India is leading an effort to waive vaccine patent protections so more countries can manufacture the vaccine themselves.
Rafiq Maqbool/AP Photos

We Americans are lucky.

Whatever roadblocks many of us may have encountered in scheduling COVID-19 vaccine appointments, Americans are now receiving their shots at a rate of 3.6 million per day. About 23% of us are now fully vaccinated, and by mid-July that number should reach 70%, the minimum threshold for herd immunity against the disease.

People in dozens of developing countries are not nearly so lucky. In more than 85 countries in Africa, Asia and South America, according to an estimate by The Economist, people will not have widespread access to COVID-19 vaccines until late next year, or even 2023.

To end the global health crisis of COVID-19, wealthier countries — led by the U.S., the richest and most powerful — should more aggressively assist every nation in achieving widespread and timely access to the vaccines.

We urge the Biden administration to listen to members of Congress, including Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, who are backing a proposal already before the World Trade Organization to temporarily waive certain vaccine patent rights so that less fortunate countries can manufacture the vaccines locally.

Lives depend on it. So too, does the world economy.

Earlier this month, more than 60 lawmakers wrote a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to back the proposal, first made to the WTO in October 2020 by India and South Africa on behalf of a group of some 100 countries.

“We’re spending lots of money to save the hospitality industry, the airlines, travel,” Schakowsky said at a recent House hearing. “It will all come to naught if the rest of the world is not protected.”

Extraordinary crisis

As things stand, countries that want to manufacture any one of seven COVID-19 vaccines that have been rolled out worldwide must negotiate licensing agreements with the vaccines’ developers, who hold the patent rights.

Under normal circumstances, we would likely defend that requirement. Drug developers are understandably fiercely protective of their intellectual property and patent rights. They bank on those protections to block competition while trying to recoup the huge investments needed — an estimated $1.3 billion, on average — to develop a new drug and bring it to market.

So when the CEO of a Bangladeshi drug company reached out to three of the COVID-19 vaccine developers to propose a deal — his company could manufacture hundreds of millions of doses for people in Asia — it’s really no surprise that nobody even returned his emails.

But a global pandemic is not normal circumstances. It requires an extraordinary response. That should include temporarily waiving patent rights, however much vaccine developers — who are pressuring Biden — might fight it.

Remember too, that COVID-19 vaccine research and development has been heavily subsidized by billions of dollars in government spending here and abroad. Taxpayers, not the pharmaceutical companies, took the big financial risk. The vaccines’ developers really have little or no investment, this time around, that they must recoup.

Saving lives comes first

The Trump administration, no doubt heeding objections from the pharmaceutical industry, was quick to block the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property) waiver proposal made last fall. The European Union and a handful of other wealthier countries followed suit.

As the world’s most powerful country, the U.S. has an obligation to show leadership and reverse course. As those pro-waiver members of Congress wrote to Biden, “we must make vaccines, testing and treatments available everywhere if we are going to crush the virus anywhere.”

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a leading trade group, has argued in a letter to Biden that wealthy countries already are making an effort to supply the developing world with more vaccines. And the trade group insists that a lack of production capacity in less developed countries, not patent protections, has been the real problem.

That might be a more convincing argument — gee, whiz, we’re already doing our best to address global inequities — if the wealthiest nations in the world had not already scooped up more than half of the supply of existing vaccine doses. And who will be getting future supplies of the vaccines if, as Dr. Anthony Fauci has warned, people who already have been vaccinated need booster shots in six months to a year?

Lives, not profits, must come first.

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