- Pharmaceutical companies are holding the COVID-19 vaccine hostage.
- Because of intellectual property laws, vaccines aren’t being distributed as fast as they could be.
- This has resulted in a “vaccine apartheid” and it doesn’t have to be this way.
- Will Meyer is a freelance writer and co-editor of The Shoestring in western Massachusetts.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
In record time, major pharmaceutical companies – boosted by significant government funding – developed multiple vaccines for COVID-19. Yet, as vaccines are beginning to be distributed, the term “vaccine nationalism” is entering the global vernacular.
Despite the fact that effective vaccines have been developed, they are not being manufactured fast enough. According to UNICEF data, only 43% of COVID vaccine manufacturing potential is currently being utilized for approved vaccines. This is because of pharmaceutical manufacturers’ desire to protect their intellectual property – the proprietary formulas and technologies used to produce the vaccine – and not share with countries and manufacturers which have the capacity to produce more doses.
To put it bluntly, these companies would rather protect their profit margins than preserve human life.
All vaccine distribution is not created equal
At the onset of the pandemic, AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer planned to make enough vaccines for one third of the world’s population. But rich countries are buying up and hoarding available doses for their own citizens, sometimes buying more than three times as many doses as they need. While more than 100 million people have already received their first dose of the vaccine, only 4% of doses are being administered in the Global South (mainly in India). According to Oxfam International, in the world’s poorest countries, Guinea is the leader, having vaccinated just 55 people.
Many business leaders, health policy experts, and government officials fear that if the vaccine capacity is dictated by intellectual property rules rather than need, the virus will continue to spread and mutate while the vaccine campaign drags on. Continued mutation and spread would impact the world economy more severely than if wealthy countries (and the global institutions where they have sway) reduced these artificial barriers to access and got the vaccine out more quickly.
Global health advocates are banding together and have created a Peoples’ Vaccine Alliance: chief among their demands is a relaxing of intellectual property rights so that manufacturing capacity can be increased.
“Our best chance of all staying safe is to ensure a COVID-19 vaccine is available for all as a global common good. This will only be possible with a transformation in how vaccines are produced and distributed – pharmaceutical corporations must allow the COVID-19 vaccines to be produced as widely as possible by sharing their knowledge free from patents,” the group’s website states.
“Instead they are protecting their monopolies and putting up barriers to restrict production and drive up prices, leaving us all in danger. No one company can produce enough for the whole world. So long as vaccine solutions are kept under lock and key, there won’t be enough to go around.”
More than that, Lois Chingandu, the Director of Frontline AIDS points out that “Over $100 billion of taxpayers’ money has funded these vaccines, while the companies behind the three successful vaccine candidates are set to make over $30 billion in revenue this year alone.”
The US funded six different COVID vaccines: AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Novavax, Merck, and Sanofi. As economist Dean Baker pointed out, “If the vaccine had proven to be ineffective, the government would have borne the cost, while [the drug companies] still would have been paid.”
Although the governments significantly contributed to the research and development of the leading vaccines, because of intellectual property laws, corporations can still profit on medicines that governments fund. In the US, this is due to the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which authorized companies to patent government funded medicines. An analysis by Baker suggests that “the amount of money transferred from the rest of us to those in a position to benefit from IP comes to more than $1 trillion annually.”
He argues that the morality of wealth gained through intellectual property claims is often obscured by debates about technology more broadly, an “impersonal force” rather than a deliberate “policy choice.”
This deliberate policy choice has a history of indirectly killing tens of millions of poor people across the world.
A new example of an old inequality
This isn’t a new problem, nor is it novel to the novel coronavirus. In fact, when AIDS spread in African countries during the late 1990s and early 2000s, pharmaceutical companies had a cocktail of drugs that suppressed symptoms, but priced these drugs out of reach for the world’s poor.
As recalled by the 2013 film Fire in The Blood, Indian drugmaker Cipla produced a generic cocktail that was identical to what Western pharmaceutical companies had created. Cipla’s drugs cost $350 per year, whereas Western drugs cost up to $15,000 per year – a symbolic price of $1 per day. But companies and institutions doubled down protecting their IP and made it illegal for these cheaper drugs to be purchased by countries like Uganda and South Africa, despite the fact that the entire African continent comprised just 1% of the global pharmaceutical market.
It is estimated that the protection of these patents cost upwards of 10 million human lives. The artificial wall preventing generic drugs from reaching people who needed them finally broke when a Ugandan doctor defied the law and went to jail for shipping Cipla’s drugs into his country. Although this action did loosen the grip on moving AIDS drugs (the US did start shipping generic AIDS drugs), the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS Agreement – which enforces IP claims on a global scale – remains in place.
On February 4th, the World Trade Organization met to discuss intellectual property as it relates to COVID vaccines. The German outlet DW reported that rich countries “balked” at calls from India and South Africa to relax patent rules, and opted to keep the status quo in place.
Right now, despite receiving R&D funding from the government, Pfizer is still making a hefty 80% profit margin selling it’s vaccine for about $39 for two doses, cementing the brutal truth that Big Pharma and their government enablers are willing to let people die to protect their bottom line.
The Peoples’ Vaccine Alliance is calling on President Biden, the UK and EU to pressure drug companies to share their publicly funded technology with more producers so that the world can be vaccinated more efficiently. They are asking that IP claims be waived so that the murderous missteps – policy choices – of the 1990s don’t happen again.
Will Meyer is a freelance writer and co-editor of The Shoestring in western Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, The New Republic, CJR, and many other publications. Find him on Twitter @willinabucket.