With coronavirus vaccine programmes rolling out and several nations now with more than half their populations at least partially vaccinated, there has been no shortage of calls for the West to do more to help lower-income nations. Some of these pleas have been heeded – the West responded to India’s crisis in the form of aid, oxygen and raw materials for vaccines – but it’s become glaringly obvious that it’s not just the charity of wealthy nations that’s needed to ensure that the rest of the globe is safely inoculated.
At the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s General Council meeting today and tomorrow, members will discuss a proposal to suspend intellectual property protections that are preventing many nations from making their own coronavirus vaccines. Such a measure would allow developing countries to dramatically increase their own production and ensure that a greater number of people are vaccinated more quickly. So far, a total of 60 WTO member countries have backed the proposal but the US, UK and Canada, among others, have voiced objections. Unsurprisingly, so have pharmaceutical companies.
The most widely touted argument against lifting patent protections is the claim that, without them, private firms would be less motivated to pursue innovation that leads to the creation of such vaccines in the first place. This ignores the fact that pharmaceutical companies’ innovation was aided in this case by Western governments, who gave vast subsidies to vaccine-makers throughout the pandemic. Beyond that, one just needs to look at the numbers: of the 1.18 billion vaccine doses administered globally, just 17 per cent have gone to developing nations and only 0.3 per cent to the world’s poorest countries. Some estimates predict that populations in the latter won’t be fully vaccinated until 2024. Borders might be opening back up but, as new variants continue to emerge, it’s still true that until the pandemic is over everywhere, it’s not fully over anywhere.