As the UK begins to see the light at the end of the Covid tunnel, at least in terms of mass vaccination and the lifting of most personal restrictions, the virus has hit the headlines anew elsewhere in the world.
Its virulent spread in India has been the most eye-catching and heart-rending, with deaths topping 4,000 a day, but Latin America is also feeling the effect of a new variant which seems to have developed in Brazil. What we’re seeing in particular is the full force of Covid hitting countries whose healthcare systems are precarious or rudimentary.
There is a predictable reaction in Europe and the US. Sympathetic horror, of course, but then quickly followed by a vague and noble feeling that “something must be done”, followed by a scrabble to find what that “something” might be. The solution which has come to the fore is the temporary lifting of patent restrictions on Covid vaccines.
The argument is that waiving patents will allow production of vaccines to be sped up and low-cost supplies to reach lower-income countries struggling to cope with Covid. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is leading the charge, supported by as many as 100 of the WHO’s 164 members, and last week the US indicated, through its trade representative, Katherine Tai, that it would support the negotiation of a waiver.
Rejoicing was not universal. Shares in the major pharmaceutical manufacturers Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax, plummeted. This was, for some, reason to celebrate: US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted “Let’s do insulin next”. The UK has remained non-committal, as has the European Union.
The underlying question is this: will waiving the intellectual property on Covid vaccines actually address the problem of shortages in developing countries? Médecins sans Frontières intoned solemnly that a waiver would “increase sufficient and timely access to these lifesaving medical tools as Covid-19 continues to ravage countries across the globe”.
But it is not at all clear that the problem is an inherent shortage of vaccines. MSF went on to complain that developing countries “only received 0.3 percent of global Covid-19 vaccine supply while the US has secured enough doses to protect its entire population”. The industry group for pharmaceutical manufacturers pointed to trade bottlenecks, poor supply chains and a reluctance on the part of higher-income countries to export vaccines: genuine problem, certainly, but none of which would be addressed by suspending IP.
We are caught between an easy, populist slogan and a hard-headed but detailed objection. “Rich countries should help poor countries!” Well, yes, of course.
But what would the effects of waiving patents actually be? The pharmaceutical companies argue that patents exist to protect their financial investments and allow them to conduct world-class research and development at an extraordinary pace. However uneasily the “profits from pandemic” scenario may sit, what’s important is the outcome, and we have seen the development of a Covid vaccine in a timescale shorter than many dreamed possible. Degrading that capability for a feel-good hit against corporate giants would be short-sighted and self-harming.
We also need to look beyond Covid. One day, hopefully later rather than sooner, there will be another global public health crisis. We have learned a great deal from our response to this one. But let’s learn all the lessons. If the pharmaceutical companies take a hit on Covid vaccines, what does that say for the future?
Paul Commander, a vaccine IP specialist at Abel and Imray, laid it out calmly and clearly. Governments “must keep one eye on the next global health crisis when the ingenuity and manufacturing heft of the world’s big pharma companies will be needed again. Will such companies be less willing to co-operate in finding solutions if they fear that any technologies they develop will be subsequently made available for free?”
Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves what we are about. Are we seeking to get the maximum number of vaccines to the most people in the shortest time? If so, the evidential case has not been made that simply suspending patents for a period of time is the solution.
The WHO rightly describe this as a “monumental moment”. But we don’t need a monument to our modish aversion to profit-making Big Pharma. Only one monument is required, and that is a reliable and free-flowing supply chain for efficacious vaccines to communities across the world. Let’s do anything needed to achieve that, rather than taking lazy potshots at the companies whose investment and research has got us as close as we are to a world in which Covid is under control.