In a recent edition of the Global Translations newsletter (April 9, 2021), Politico’s Ryan Heath surprisingly editorialized the position of opponents of a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver for essential Covid-19 treatments. Heath claimed that a removal of intellectual property (IP) protections would not necessarily lead to greater vaccine access worldwide. Citing Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the newsletter questions certain countries’ capacity to handle vaccine-related operations not tied to intellectual property.
Led by India and South Africa, and supported by over 100 World Trade Organization members, the proposal calls on the TRIPS council to waive IP protections to ensure new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for Covid-19 are “available promptly, in sufficient quantities and at affordable price to meet global demand.” The proposal is a global call to prioritize our collective safety and security over pharmaceutical companies’ monopolies.
However, in Heath’s view, waiving IP protections would not be beneficial because “[i]t’s unrealistic to think the world’s poorest countries will all of a sudden run at full speed if IP is handed to them for free.” The more likely result, Heath argues, is a weaponization of the intellectual property by China for financial and diplomatic advantage, which he considers to be a national security concern.
At the core of Heath’s claim is an ideology that is common in international development circles. It is a tendency to uplift aid and charity, rather than actual structural reforms, as a solution to countries’ developmental issues. Right now, richer countries have an opportunity to support a true global recovery by waiving protections on the Covid-19 treatments. Open sharing of technology and knowledge — that should already be a global public resource — is key to expanding global manufacturing capacity that will foster current and future vaccine production in poorer countries. A waiver, matched with global investment in research and development, moves us closer to our shared goal of closing the chapter on Covid-19. Relying solely on the alternative (charity and aid) leaves all of us in an unnecessarily dangerous position.
As many policy experts and researchers have repeatedly mentioned, significant portions of the research that led to the development of these vaccines were financed by the federal government. Take Moderna, for example, where the US government’s $1 billion contribution covered 100 percent of the company’s Covid-19 vaccine research costs. Similarly, Pfizer received a $455 million grant from the German government for vaccine development, as well as $6 billion in purchase commitments from the United States and the European Union. Government support for vaccine development extends beyond direct contributions — both vaccines are based on two fundamental discoveries that emerged from federally funded programs: viral protein designs and RNA modification. Evidently, public funds and programs led to development of these vaccines, and as such, the vaccines should belong to the public all over the world. Continuation of the status quo is beneficial only to a handful of pharmaceutical companies who stand to reap massive profits at the expense of global public health with current IP protections.
Some industry players and policy analysts have argued that we need not waive IP to ensure global vaccination because we can rely on alternatives like COVAX — a global aid-funded program led by GAVI and the World Health Organization to provide vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. As of April 13, 2021, COVAX has shipped 38 million vaccines to 106 participating countries. Even at the current pace, countries reliant on COVAX will only have enough vaccines to cover about 3 percent of their populations by the midpoint of the year, and 20 percent by the end of the year. How anyone can consider this a reliable and timely alternative for a deadly pandemic that has brought the world to a halt is beyond me.
Moreover, to claim that weakening IP protections would allow China to threaten US national security without recognizing the clear and present danger posed by the pandemic to national security is a talking point that ignores global public health in favor of great power competition.
The world is currently at an inflection point — Western leaders can choose to continue blocking the TRIPS waiver and lock in a cycle of dependence, or empower poorer countries to develop generic vaccines and build infrastructure that will safely put the pandemic behind us. Critiques of the TRIPS waiver claim that most poor countries lack the infrastructure to carry out vaccine operations — a paternalistic view that suggests that manufacturing capacity, supply chain management, and logistics are static in nature. The sooner we act, the more time poorer countries have to begin mobilizing resources needed to make generic vaccine development possible.
This capacity is especially important considering the mutative nature of the virus. The more the virus spreads, the more variants emerge, leading to a scenario where current vaccines are less effective. Thus, additional vaccine production is an ongoing process that must occur at a global scale. It is pointless flirting with the possibility of renewed outbreaks of the virus.
With estimates that 85 countries will not have Covid-19 vaccines widely available until 2023, there is no scientific, moral, or economic reason to eschew any option that will bring a true collective solution to the pandemic.
It’s a simple call. We are not safe until every one of us is.
Image: “Syringe and Vaccine” by NIAID is licensed under CC BY 2.0