Global cooperation has never been more pertinent. The ongoing pandemic, not to mention the imminent climate crisis, has justified the need for governments to incentivize cooperation and collaboration – across and within countries – just as they have long done for the competition.
In this regard, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General recently and rightly condemned richer nations for using vaccines as a tool for diplomacy. Amid a series of tragedies unfolding globally, particularly among the poorer nations, it is only right that the advanced economies extend support in whatever capacity they can to help these countries gain access to vaccines without the intention of gaining geopolitical leverage.
The rollout of vaccination programs earlier this year has sparked a discourse on vaccine inequality across countries. With the ten richest countries accounting for about 80% of the total vaccination, there is an evident global disparity in vaccine distribution. This vaccine farce could be better understood by taking a look at how the wealthy nations have hoarded the global vaccine supply; Canada has enough doses to vaccinate its entire population five times, 3.6 times for the United Kingdom, 2.7 times for the European Union, 2.5 times for Australia, and 2 times for the United States.
Subsequently, some have called for the removal of the patent rights on the vaccine, citing “pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to share knowledge and technology” to maintain monopoly as the reason for limited vaccine production and thus the scarcity of available vaccine doses to poor countries. The United States, in effect, has recently joined 100 other nations in endorsing waiving the intellectual property (IP) protection for the COVID vaccines. The opponents, on the other hand, have pointed out that disregarding IP protection rules would only discourage and inhibit future innovations all together. However, such a claim is flimsy at best considering the sheer lack of evidence linking the rise in patents to the rise in innovations. Moreover, the state is the biggest enabler of innovations like vaccines as they entail massive public subsidies and publicly funded research, which further obscures the role of patents in fostering innovations.
On the contrary, some have entirely dismissed the attribution of supply constraint to production capacity issues brought about by patents. They have argued that the removal versus retention of IP protection is an irrelevant debate as the shortage in vaccines is not caused by limited production capacity per se. Rather it is the reluctance of companies to “activate their existing production capacity without pre-purchase commitments” that has made it increasingly challenging for low-income countries to procure sufficient doses. As a result,high-income countries have ended up with more vaccine doses than they require while the poorer counterparts struggle to vaccinate even a small fraction of their population.
In this regard, Covax, led by WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and Gavi, works toward establishing a fairer distribution mechanism and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines through a concentrated global effort. Nevertheless, the Covax scheme has been unsuccessful in the timely delivery of adequate vaccine doses to nations that are inundated with incessant COVID cases, India being the case in point.
While COVAX is a commendable step towards global collaboration in defeating the pandemic, it is not and has not been, enough. Countries with vaccine abundance must donate their surplus doses to low-income countries. The Director-General of WHO has urged the rich nations to redirect their vaccine supply to inoculate the vulnerable population of poor states via the Covax scheme, instead of vaccinating their children/teenage population. Furthermore, loan conditions for “vaccine pre-purchases” imposed by multilateral institutions like the World Bank should be less rigid and more accessible.
Without meaningful global coordination, and empathy supplanting diplomacy, a COVID-free world is certainly out of our reach.
Thumbnail Picture Source: https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-12-29/Animation-Why-is-COVID-19-vaccine-so-important–WAnL8gwQko/index.html