As NGOs, UN agencies and the governments of less affluent states call for the suspension of patents, the stakes could not be higher
The consensus is that the current pandemic will be with us for a long time to come. We will enter a period of intermittent outbreaks of COVID-19, whose precise characteristics are yet to be defined. There are no clear rules governing the interplay between our immune system and the mutations of the virus. We will have to live with uncertainty, however dramatic the advances in contemporary biomedical science.
Yet we know a few things for sure.
We know that the recurrence of pandemics is related to the dominant model of development and consumption, and to the associated changes in climate; to the pollution of seas and rivers and to the deforestation of forests.
We know that the acute phase of this pandemic – the possibility of severe contamination – will only end when 60-70% of the world’s population is immunised.
We know that this task is hampered by worsening social inequalities within and between countries, combined with the fact that Big Pharma does not want to give up patent rights on vaccines. Vaccines are already seen as the new liquid gold, succeeding oil, the liquid gold of the 20th century.
We know that state policies, political cohesion around the pandemic and public behaviour are decisive. The degree of success depends on the combination of epidemiological surveillance, infection reduction through containment, the effectiveness of the hospital back-up, better public knowledge about the pandemic and attention to special vulnerabilities.
Mistakes, negligence and even necrophiliac intentions on the part of some political leaders have given rise to forms of death-by-health policies that we call social Darwinism: the elimination of disposable social groups because they are old, because they are poor or because they are discriminated against for ethnic, racial or religious reasons.
Finally, we know that the European (and North American) world showed in this pandemic the same arrogance with which it has treated the non-European world for the past five centuries. Believing that the best technical-scientific knowledge comes from the West, it has been unwilling to learn from the way other countries in the Global South have dealt with epidemics and, specifically, with this virus.
Long before Europeans realised the importance of the mask, the Chinese made it compulsory. On the other hand, due to a toxic mix of prejudice and lobbying pressure from Western pharmaceutical companies, the EU, the US and Canada have relied exclusively on vaccines produced by these companies, with as yet unpredictable consequences.
On top of all this, we know that there is a geo-strategic vaccine war badly disguised by empty appeals to the well-being and health of the world's population. According to the science journal Nature, as of 30 March, the world needs eleven billion doses of vaccines (based on two doses per person) to achieve herd immunity on a global scale.
As of the end of February, orders for some 8.6 billion doses were confirmed, of which 6 billion were destined for the rich countries of the Global North. This means that impoverished countries, which account for 80% of the world’s population, will have access to less than a third of the available vaccines.
This vaccine injustice is particularly perverse because, given the global connections that characterise our time, no one will be truly protected until the whole world is protected. Moreover, the longer it takes to achieve herd immunity on a global scale, the greater the likelihood that virus mutations will become more dangerous to health and more resistant to available vaccines.
A recent study, which brought together 77 scientists from several countries around the world, concluded that within a year or less, mutations in the virus will render the first generation of vaccines ineffective. This is all the more likely the longer it takes to vaccinate the world’s population.
Now, according to estimates by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, a global coalition of health and humanitarian organisations, at the current rate only 10% of the population in the poorest countries will be vaccinated by the end of next year. Further delays will result in a further proliferation of fake news – the infodemic, as the WHO calls it, which has been particularly destructive in Africa.
There is consensus today that one of the most effective measures would be the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights on patents for COVID-19 vaccines by big pharmaceutical companies. Such a suspension would make vaccine production more global, faster and cheaper. Thus, more quickly, global herd immunity would be achieved.
In addition to the health justice that would make such a suspension legitimate, there are other good reasons to defend it. For one thing, patent rights were created to stimulate competition in normal times. Pandemic times are exceptional times that, instead of competition and rivalry, require convergence and solidarity. Pharmaceutical companies have already pocketed billions of euros of public money in funding to encourage faster research and development of vaccines.
Moreover, there are precedents for patent suspensions, not only in the case of retrovirals for the control of HIV/AIDS, but also in the case of penicillin during the Second World War. If we were in a conventional war, the production and distribution of weapons would certainly not be under the control of the private companies that produce them. The state would certainly intervene. We are not in a conventional war, but the damage the pandemic does to the lives and well-being of populations may prove similar. (There are almost three million dead to date).
It is not surprising, therefore, that there is now a vast global coalition of NGOs, states and UN agencies that favour the recognition of vaccines (and health in general) as a public good and not a business, and the consequent temporary suspension of patent rights.
Far beyond vaccines, this global movement is about the struggle for access to health for all, and for transparency and public control of public funds involved in the production of medicines and vaccines.
In turn, some 100 countries, led by India and South Africa, have already asked the World Trade Organization to suspend patent rights related to vaccines. These countries do not include the countries of the Global North. COVAX, the World Health Organisation’s initiative to ensure global access to the vaccine, is therefore doomed to failure.
Let us not forget that, according to data from the Corporate Europe Observatory, Big Pharma spends between 15 and 17 million euros a year to lobby EU decisions, and that the pharmaceutical industry as a whole has 175 lobbyists in Brussels working for the same purpose.
The scandalous lack of transparency in vaccine contracts is the result of this pressure. If Portugal wanted to give distinction and true cosmopolitan solidarity to its current presidency of the Council of the European Union, it has a good subject to choose here. All the more so if another Portuguese person, the UN Secretary General, has just called for health to be considered a global public good.
All indications are that, in this area as in others, the EU will continue to abdicate any global responsibility. Intending to remain glued to the global policies of the US, in this case it may be overtaken by America itself: the Biden administration is considering suspending the patents for a vaccine-relevant technology developed in 2016 by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.