Big Pharma could supply the whole world with a COVID vaccine. They’ve chosen not

There was finally some good news this month on the pandemic front: two experimental mRNA vaccines have shown to be over 90% effective, and once they get marketing authorization, doses could become available for distribution as early as the end of this year.

And while this is certainly good news for some, it is not good news for all. If you live in the United States, there may be cause to believe that the dark days of COVID will soon be over. But if you live in Burkina Faso, this pandemic is not ending anytime soon.

As a business journalist who covers the pharmaceutical industry, I have an up-close look over the past year at how Big Pharma has responded to the pandemic. At the start of the crisis, my cynicism was replaced with cautious optimism as I watched the industry quickly respond to the all-hands-on-deck call to find a vaccine. Now, as these vaccines inch closer to the finish line, I am once again fearful that how we choose to ramp up manufacturing — and who we decide should be first in line to receive the vaccine — is revealing a darker side of humanity.

For starters, many vaccine doses have already been pre-pledged to rich countries. The Trump administration awarded Moderna and Pfizer billion-dollar contracts in exchange for 100 million doses of their vaccine.

Likewise, human rights groups have reported that 82% of Pfizer’s vaccine supply has already been purchased by a handful of rich countries representing 14% of the global population; for Moderna, 78% of the doses have been pre-purchased for 12% of the population. 

Just last week, the European Commission approved a fourth contract with Pfizer and BioNTech for 200 million doses of their vaccine, with the option to add an additional 100 million doses. The Commission was very keen, however, to stress that they are committed to guaranteeing global equitable access and that member states are free to donate any of their doses if they want to.

The “if they want to” line is sophistry, as there have been multiple opportunities for governments and pharma companies to show they are committed to making sure that everyone, regardless of where they live in the world, will have equal access to the vaccine.

It has been widely acknowledged that no one pharmaceutical company has the capacity to supply the entire world with a vaccine. Every single pharmaceutical company is going to need help. That means that if governments were serious about reaching everybody on the planet, they could force the pharma companies receiving these billion-dollar contracts to relinquish all patent rights. Not only has this not happened, but the pharma companies are pulling out all the stops to make sure it won’t.

Last month, India and South Africa went to the World Trade Organization (WTO) to ask for a waiver for all intellectual property rights to COVID-19 vaccines, technologies and therapies. A handful of rich countries including the United States, the EU, Canada, Japan and the UK (curiously enough, the very same countries that bought up the 82% of the Pfizer vaccine) rejected the proposal and said that poorer countries should instead issue compulsory licenses.

A compulsory license is when a country obligates a patent owner to give up their rights in exchange for compensation later. The representative of South Africa told the assembly of rich nations at the WTO that this approach is not feasible in the current pandemic because going “product by product” would take too long, and many countries don’t have laws on the books that would allow them to demand a compulsory license anyway. The rich countries were not persuaded by these arguments.

Developing countries could have bypassed compulsory licenses if pharma companies had decided to donate their patents in the first place. Back in March, the WHO started the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), which includes the Open Covid Pledge, whereby businesses can donate their patents, technology and know-how to help fight the…

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