Is The Time Ripe For Global Access To The COVID Vaccine?

Anglo and American leaders are set on temporarily waiving the COVID-19 vaccine patent, with both the US and EU backing a temporary suspension. The arrangement was proposed by the WTO (World Trade Organisation), India and South Africa. The temporary suspension will open the gates to increased production, and thus distribution, amongst the populations very much at the bottom of the global economic hierarchy. For example, to date, the distribution count in Kyrgyzstan (population of six million) is 1000. War-ravaged Yemen (population of 29 million) has a count of 19,000.

Despite the initial defensive posture adopted by a handful of developed nations, which continues to prevent the effective international distribution of vaccines, politicians are beginning to speak out. Katherine Tai, the United States Trade Representative, courageously vocalized the philosophy at the centre of the campaign: “extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.” Echoing Mrs. Tai’s affirmations, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO (World Health Organization), signified the U.S.A’s willingness to impart a “historical and monumental moment in the ongoing fight against COVID-19. It appears increasingly likely that the WTO will hold a pivotal meeting on the matter in early June. 

A pervasive, albeit sparsely highlighted, issue of the morally bankrupt position of vaccine hoarding is the presence of market failure. This is most obvious in the form of monopoly power and asymmetric information. The former favours the producer by securing astronomical profits, while the latter disadvantages the vaccine recipient through barriers to access and higher prices. Such an arrangement is intent on artificially rationing vaccine supply, therefore resulting in higher prices at the cost of the consumer. The asymmetry of information is most evident in the refusal to share intellectual property rights by vaccine producers. AstraZeneca, for example, refused to join the WHO’s COVID-19 Tech Access Pool – a collective of pharmaceutical firms encouraging knowledge-sharing for effective consumer access. A refusal to participate restricts supply and blocks access to cutting-edge innovative methods and knowledge. Such information is vital for scientific and political communities which lie outside of the bubble of first-world nations. 

Perhaps most pivotal to the movement to temporarily waive the COVID-19 vaccine patent involved laying the groundwork for the remarkable success of the vaccine. It was facilitated by a tax-payer-funded research and development project, spearheaded by the U.K’s University of Oxford. At its core, the Gates Foundation functioned as an intermediary for AstraZeneca. It swooped into the University’s pipeline and successfully persuaded the institution to introduce a patent structure, which effectively made equitable distribution near-impossible. Given this cynical act of profiteering, and the inevitable bureaucratic red-tape intrinsic to global intellectual property law, the WHO estimates the first material effects will be seen as late as Summer 2022. 

Moreover, The Lancet, a leading peer-reviewed medical journal, stipulates that vaccines have to be produced at scale and widely deployed in local communities. Moreover, it reinforces that some communities may lack the functional distribution networks necessary. It is futile to widen avenues of distribution for COVID-19 vaccines, by means of a patent waiver, if marginalized and small-scale communities – largely in poorer nations – lack the immediate means and logistics to ensure effective delivery.