Intellectual Property Rights — A New Gulag for Vaccines?
Reeling under the weight of a mutating virus that’s perpetually present, countries across the world are struggling to achieve herd immunity. While the science supporting several curative and preventive measures is still young, the international community collectively sighed in relief when vaccines started to gain emergency approval for distribution and administration. After a little over a year of lockdowns, the approval of vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Oxford — AstraZeneca seemed to give the world hope that life could be normal once again.
However the politics, intellectual property rights and profit margins that dictate the world of medicines and pharmaceuticals all but put a fullstop to these hopes. While richer countries were able to mass produce and distribute vaccines at encouraging rates to their populations, middle and low income countries struggled to acquire enough supplies to inoculate their populations. A large part of the inability of ‘developing’ countries to stock enough vaccines is due to the intellectual property rights that each of the pharmaceutical big players have that protects the ‘recipe’ of their vaccines from being replicated by other labs across the globe. Simply put, it means that if anyone wants to access a vaccine, the only way they can do so is through the company that possesses the rights to make it.
This creates several economic barriers for lower income countries — the cost of acquiring vaccines is high, and this is excluding the cost of shipping, storage and taxations that would be levied on a commercial scale. Most importantly, intellectual property rights prevent these countries from undertaking the production of vaccines locally — which would not only be cost effective for the state, but also for its citizens. The disparity in the transmission of knowledge has high stakes — it’s not profit margins being played with, as much as it is people.
It’s no secret that countries like Brazil and India have suffered immensely due to their large populations, lack of adequate support or funding for public health infrastructure and proportionally smaller welfare budgets. The rate at which vaccinations are being administered is far less than the minimum required amount to achieve immunity in the short term for even 50% of their respective populations.
In a historic move, the Biden administration has called for a waiver on intellectual property rights that protect COVID-19 vaccinations, stating that “extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures’’ (Indian Express). It’s important to note that the US supporting the waiver follows a proposal that was put forward by India and South Africa last year, calling for a waiver on the intellectual property rights on all COVID-19 related interventions.
While the US’s support on the waiver is an important first step towards bridging the gap between unequal distribution of and access to COVID-19 vaccines, it’s necessary to think about how the pandemic has made us confront the harsh realities of how intellectual property rights stymie the possibility of medical aid, interventions and novel curative breakthroughs being fairly, equitably available for all.