Next Steps for a People’s Vaccine
The Biden administration’s decision to stop opposing a proposed COVID-19 waiver of certain intellectual-property rights under World Trade Organization rules is a welcome move. But ending the pandemic also requires scaling up knowledge and technology transfer, as well as public production of vaccine supplies.
NEW DELHI – The Biden administration’s decision to stop opposing a proposed COVID-19 waiver of certain intellectual-property rights under World Trade Organization rules is a welcome move. The US Trade Representative acknowledges that “the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.” While affirming that it “believes strongly in intellectual property protections,” the Biden administration, “in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.” Already, the US decision may be persuading other rich-country holdouts in Europe and elsewhere to follow suit.
While the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines was a truly impressive achievement, it has been tarnished by constraints on global vaccine supply and the related inequities in distribution. As of May 4, less than 8% of the world’s population had received even one dose of any COVID-19 vaccine, while just ten rich countries accounted for 80% of all vaccinations. The reason is not just that rich countries have been buying up all available doses; it is also that there simply have not been enough doses to go around.
But this scarcity itself is largely artificial. Vaccine production has been limited by pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to share knowledge and technology. Though the companies producing the approved vaccines have benefited from public subsidies and publicly funded research, they nonetheless have taken advantage of patent protections to maintain a monopoly, limiting production to their own factories and a select few other companies to whom they have granted licenses.