Until life-saving vaccinations are widely accessible, it will be challenging to bring the COVID-19 epidemic to a halt. That is a reality with which the world is increasingly confronted.
However, vaccination for most of the world’s population remains a long way off for the time being, as scientists debate how to scale up vaccine manufacturing and distribute doses equitably over the globe.
Last week, the US made headlines by saying that it would support a waiver of intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccine technology. A move that supporters say might eliminate legal hurdles and make it simpler for different nations, particularly those with lower incomes, to manufacture and distribute doses. In a statement, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai stated, “This is a global health disaster, and the unusual conditions of the COVID-19 epidemic call for extreme actions.”
Advocates believe the action shows the US is serious about tackling vaccination inequities and is prepared to say something to the pharmaceutical sector, which has received billions in public funds. Public health takes precedence over the business in many cases, including vaccine development and purchasing agreements.
“I believe it’s symbolic—in a positive way,” says Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University. “After all the damage we caused on the global stage under the last administration, this is a big reputational boost for the United States.”
Others, including major pharmaceutical corporations, argue that it’s a diversion from the real issue at hand: a global scarcity of raw materials, qualified workers, and other infrastructure needed to manufacture life-saving COVID-19 vaccines. “There is a discrepancy. We’re seeking solutions in the law, but this isn’t a legal issue,” says Ana Santos Rutschman, an assistant professor of health law at Saint Louis’ University School of Law. She claims that tinkering with IP won’t “magically enhance productivity overnight.”
Wealthier nations have successfully monopolized the restricted manufacturing system since introducing COVID-19 vaccinations late last year by placing massive advance purchases, thereby squeezing out middle- and low-income countries.
In the United States and China alone, around half of the 1.3 billion vaccine doses given so far have been administered. According to a University of Oxford database, the United States has given at least one shot to more than 45 percent of the population. In the meanwhile, just a few dosages have been shown in other regions of the world. Only 15% and 10% of the populations in Brazil and India, two nations confronting massive COVID-19 outbreaks and astounding death rates, have been at least partially vaccinated. According to the Oxford database, the number for the African continent is 1%.
On Saturday, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus remarked, “The divide between the haves and have-nots is quite distressing.” According to The New York Times, Covax, a worldwide vaccine distribution project, has only supplied about a fourth of its objective thus far. Researchers have predicted that in low-income countries, reaching levels near to herd immunity might take years. “We have the technology to rescue the planet, but we aren’t willing to share it. Gostin says, “We’re stockpiling it.” “From a moral standpoint, it’s unforgivable.”
Experts warn the virus will continue to spread and spike anywhere it is left unchecked, giving it plenty of opportunities to evolve into more infectious, lethal, or vaccine-resistant strains. “To keep ourselves secure, we need to safeguard other countries,” says Graham Dutfield, an international governance professor at the University of Leeds. “We won’t know if we’re secure until everybody’s safe.”
In response, a group of around 100 nations and international organizations has been pleading with members of the World Trade Organization for months to agree to suspend IP rights for COVID-19 vaccines temporarily. They warn that vaccination patent holders may refuse to license their technology to other firms without broad action.
Independent producers would create and distribute what would otherwise be patent-protected under the idea (which may take weeks or months to negotiate and finalize).
The IP waiver, if passed, would be historic. Previous public health emergencies prompted extraordinary legal measures to rapidly scaling up the manufacture and widespread acceptance of ground-breaking medications, drugs, and inventions.
According to Dutfield, the US government forced businesses and academics to collaborate during World War II to scale up penicillin manufacturing for soldiers. He continues, “They effectively compelled business and academics to pool all of their knowledge.” “It was a big success. In about six months, the United States went from producing nothing to producing massive amounts.”
Volvo chose to put up its patent for a unique three-point seatbelt to rivals a few decades later to propagate life-saving inventions widely. Many nations were able to get licenses on patented pharmaceuticals to treat HIV/AIDS in the early twenty-first century, allowing them to respond promptly to the worldwide epidemic.
But, according to Michael Merson, a research professor at NYU School of Global Public Health and a professor of global health at Duke University, there is a significant gap between that crisis and the one we are presently experiencing. “With these medications, there was an instantaneous capability to create them—not so with these vaccines,” he adds. “It’s not the same at all. If that were, I’d be overjoyed.”
According to critics, the IP waiver would not solve any of the practical issues based on COVID-19 vaccine shortages and unfairness. Even without patents, establishing new factories, training trained employees, obtaining raw materials, and establishing distribution hubs might take a year or more. According to Prashant Yadav, a supply chain specialist and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, “if the waiver is equivalent to freely releasing the vaccines’ recipe, we still need to assist new chefs in getting the ingredients and perfecting the cooking procedures.” “We need to address everything else when we address the patent issue,” he continues.
Vaccines such as those made by Moderna and Pfizer rely on messenger RNA technology, which necessitates the expertise of scientists and technicians. To assure the quality and safety of their goods, new vaccine production locations will also require administrators and regulatory control and access to limited materials like vials and stoppers. “All of the stuff is in short supply,” Yadav adds, adding that obtaining it will take months. “We’re talking about the earliest, earliest 12 months—if everything was in place.”
If major pharmaceutical firms agree, Yadav and others have proposed another legal option: voluntary licensing, which they believe may cut months or years off the ramp-up process. Patent holders would engage directly with new locations under a voluntary licensing structure, which has already been employed with HIV/AIDS and drug-resistant TB therapies; As they scale up, I’ll be guiding them through the production process. In their deal, the pharma corporations would also be permitted to include quality norms. “You’re sending the chef along with the recipe,” Yadav explains, rather than handing him the guidebook.
Meanwhile, like Merson, some are asking current, well-established vaccine manufacturers to ramp up production and get as many doses out as possible. He said, “We have to do all we can to get vaccination supplies up and running.” “There has to be a greater sense of urgency. Now is the time to deal with this crisis.”