The news of ground-breaking vaccines that could spell the end of the global coronavirus pandemic was met with a collective sigh of relief in the West. But in the Global South, the overwhelming feeling was one of dread and anger at the new social chasm on the horizon: between the vaccine haves and have-nots.
We know that vaccinating populations that are most at-risk — such as health care workers and the elderly — will be key to meeting the challenges of the long year ahead and getting the pandemic under control.
But under current vaccine distribution mechanisms such as the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative, which are commendable, there simply will not be enough vaccine doses to go around by the end of 2021.
This is not only a moral issue. Failure to provide equitable access to the vaccine will have dire and long-lasting consequences for human health and make it more difficult to end the pandemic. The virus may even have a chance to mutate and become vaccine resistant, raising the possibility of new waves of infection.
And yet the Global North does not seem to be heeding the urgent warning from WHO chief Tedros Adhanom that “no one is safe until everyone is.”
Already, the United States and wealthy European countries have locked up most of the global supply of vaccines for their own populations, pushing lower income nations to the back of the queue.
The pharmaceutical industry — while it certainly deserves praise for producing safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines in record time — should not be given free rein to pursue these types of monopolistic deals with the fruits of taxpayer-funded innovation.
Instead, they should be volunteering to hand over intellectual property rights and know-how for the next great task facing humanity: getting these ground-breaking vaccines to everyone, everywhere, at the lowest cost and as fast as possible.
That’s why nearly 100 countries are supporting a proposal at the World Trade Organization this month to issue a broad-based general waiver on patents and other IP rights to all COVID-19 vaccines and medical technologies. South Africa, a country where the tragic history of lives needlessly lost to the HIV/Aids pandemic looms large, is a co-sponsor of the proposal.
There should not be a North-South divide on the core issue of saving human lives in countries where most of the global population lives. Now is the time for G20 leaders to show that they mean every word when they say they will “spare no effort” to leave no one behind.
A binding agreement to allow the vaccine to be patent-free could transform the situation dramatically by sending a clear message that the vaccine is a global common good.
So far, wealthy countries such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Japan have opposed the WTO proposal that would allow low-income countries to focus on getting life-saving COVID-19 medical technologies to their people at the lowest cost, without the fear of being sued for infringing intellectual property rights. Even Brazil, which has been hard-hit by the pandemic, has abandoned its long-held position and joined the group of countries opposing patent-free production of these vaccines.
European leaders are faced with a choice: They can look only within their own borders and put the financial interests of their pharmaceutical companies ahead of global health, or they can renounce vaccine nationalism and stand in solidarity with the world’s most vulnerable people.
If Europe joins the Global South to put people above patents and enable countries to waive IP rights, it could decisively tip the scales to pass the WTO resolution with three-quarters of the votes.
The alternative is to leave people in the Global South with no promise of a speedy vaccine, raising the risk that they will turn in desperation to a dangerous crop of fake cures and vaccines.
To end this global emergency, we must join hands to deliver a safe, affordable and effective COVID-19 vaccine to all corners of the world. The path to protecting people everywhere starts with a simple moral decision: prioritize lives over patents and suspend IP rights on vaccine production, the way it was done in the case of the polio vaccine.
European leaders should not miss this historic opportunity.