The US is now backing plans that could help billions more access vaccines. The UK should follow suit
Last modified on Thu 6 May 2021 14.16 EDT
The rapid emergence of Covid vaccines has been a remarkable yet bittersweet success, pointing to both humanity’s scientific achievements and its social and economic failures. Experts created them at extraordinary speed; yet as the pandemic rages, many of those most vulnerable and at risk still have little prospect of accessing doses. We have created vaccine billionaires, yet cannot vaccinate billions.
An unexpected and very welcome reversal by the United States could change this. Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures, its trade representative, Katherine Tai, said on Wednesday. It is backing a plan to suspend intellectual property (IP) protections for vaccines – to the dismay of the big pharma firms that it has long protected. The head of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, rightly described this as a monumental moment in the fight against Covid.
The case for a waiver on vaccines, treatments and diagnostics has been building since South Africa and India proposed it in October. Wealthier nations, with pharmaceutical interests, have opposed it. But the glaring inequity of vaccine distribution is increasingly evident. So are its consequences.
US backing may not be enough. World Trade Organization agreements require all members to agree. While the EU is now saying that it is “ready to discuss” the plan, the UK appears unmoved. The shift will be bitterly contested. Pharmaceuticals firms fear activists would subsequently use the unprecedented move as reason to waive IP in other cases.
On the domestic front, this is another concession to progressive Democrats by the Biden administration. Internationally, it should help bolster American soft power in the post-Trump era. Specifically, it recognises that there is little point in grumbling about Chinese “vaccine diplomacy” if you are not providing any vaccines at all. Some think that climate change negotiations may also have played a part, with the US anxious to bring developing countries back on side. A more cynical view is that focusing on protracted negotiations and long-term plans is a distraction from awkward questions about why richer nations are hoarding doses that poorer ones desperately need. It is certainly true that more equitable sharing of existing doses is a matter of urgency. But the two courses of action are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary: both are necessary.
Put simply, the pandemic is not going away, and producing enough vaccines to protect the world will require a massive increase in production. While some argue that big pharma would love to increase production further, given the profits to be made, others suspect that they see more to gain in large, regular, lucrative contracts with the rich for booster shots than smaller, lower-priced deals with the poor. It is also hard to put much credence in the argument that alternative forms of technology transfer – such as the licensing deal signed by AstraZeneca with the Serum Institute of India – will suffice. AstraZeneca is an exception, not the rule. Campaigners also point out that taxpayers funded the vaccine’s development, and that the firm still controls distribution and prices. Activists want transparency.
Producing vaccines is extraordinarily complex, much more so than manufacturing generic medication. (Some global health experts are unconvinced that a waiver is the answer.) A huge amount of knowhow is involved, as well as production conditions of a sufficiently high standard. A good deal of help – and funding – will be needed. All this will take time. But opposition to the waiver has already cost half a year. The ugliness of the EU and UK’s position has been exposed by the US reversal. They now have a chance to place themselves on the right side of history.
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