The debate on the patent release of COVID19 vaccines is open and has intensified in the context of the WHO Assembly, which is taking place these days. Marianella Kloka, from Pressenza’s Greek desk, which has been following this issue closely, is here to talk to us about it.
This article is a translation from an interview in Spanish:
From the moment that companies and national research centres around the world began to enter the vaccine race, almost all leaders, except perhaps Trump, spoke of vaccines as a global good, a common good. Everyone’s pledge was that if we had vaccines, we would not opt for two-speed vaccination: which would see rich countries vaccinated quickly and poor countries left behind. A year ago, world leaders seemed to understand that either we would all be vaccinated or we would not escape the pandemic. Today the situation is not so rosy. The global patent pool created by the World Health Organisation to help vaccinate every country in the world is not making the contribution which we had hoped for. Forecasts say that 83 countries will not start vaccination programmes until 2023. At the same time, the United States and Israel have very rapid vaccination coverage in their populations, but that is not enough to prevent us all from getting sick again. It is also worth noting that, according to a study by the People Vaccines alliance, at least nine people have become new billionaires since the start of the pandemic, thanks to the excessive profits made by the monopoly pharmaceutical companies in the production of vaccines. If you add up the profits of the new 9 billionaires, the total net worth reaches $19.3 billion, enough capital to vaccinate every person in every low-income country more than once. Meanwhile, these countries have received only 0.2% of the world’s vaccine supply due to the huge shortfall of available doses, despite the fact that these countries make up 10% of the world’s population. As you understand “Houston, we have a problem”.
The patent liberalisation debate… What is the key and what are the positions?
It is important to understand that intellectual property rights protection, better known as the TRIPS agreement, has a short history. It was established by a resolution at the World Trade Organisation only in 1994. According to contemporary thinkers, this agreement is part of a variant of capitalism introduced by Reagan and Thatcher. Capitalism is known to glorify the market and, because it believes so much in the market, it tries to regulate itself with as few restrictions as possible. But as the Australian academic John Braithwaite says, today we live in monopoly capitalism, a paradox if we think about it, an unconventional concept and a new form of capitalism. Instead of letting the market decide, TRIPS decides which products, for at least 20 full years, no one has the right to intervene, with the protection of intellectual property rights. And the most outrageous thing, for all of us who did not agree with the market as the god and ultimate regulator of everything, is which drug or vaccine that has been patented for 20 years has emerged several times from public funding in the early stages of research. In other words, we pay twice and will not be able to do something about it. However, the TRIPS agreement has also provided some flexibility, in cases where the public interest is at stake. I think it is clear from the data I presented earlier, that the global public interest is at stake. Unless we are all vaccinated and safe, no one will be safe. So the WAIVER proposal by India and South Africa builds on this flexibility. The WAIVER initiative aims at temporarily removing intellectual property rights protection on drugs, vaccines, diagnostics which help tackle the pandemic. It now has the support of 100 countries and recently we have seen which has the support of the United States, the support of Russia and China. The European Union remains the opposite, to this day.
Releasing patents without having the technology and infrastructure to produce vaccines… Is this really a solution?
The release of patents must go hand in hand with the sharing of knowledge about vaccines and especially about the new generation of mRNA vaccines. One of the criticisms of this initiative is that even if we temporarily release intellectual property, we don’t have the global infrastructure to scale up production. But you saw that last week we welcomed to the European Parliament the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, Ms Okonjo-Iweala, who said that she had met with manufacturers around the world and that she had assurances that we could significantly increase production if we supported the WAIVER initiative. My view is that we must bring our full arsenal to this global battle and prioritise both safety and health over profit. The WAIVER initiative I believe is surely a way in this direction.
Which elements should the good comprehensive international policy consider?
We have not got it all wrong. First of all let’s say that at the moment we have 6-7 good vaccines available in record time, some of them even have completely new biotechnology. Science has achieved a lot in a very short time. We have also seen examples of solidarity: countries sending medical staff, masks and respirators to other countries, laboratories working to produce masks and respiratory valves for free, especially at the beginning, at the time when everything was brand new. We have seen solidarity on a small scale, such as support for people which were in quarantine or for very poor citizens through social meals, etc. But we have seen examples of solidarity on a large scale maybe not as large as we would like… For example, the European Union mobilised for the first time in its history the mechanism of joint negotiation with pharmaceutical companies and ordering for all its 27 countries, leaving as a legacy that in the vaccination process there are no countries which can do it and others which are left behind. The same must now be done at the global level.
The role of the WHO just in Assembly these days?
Accelerating global vaccination is exactly what the head of the World Health Organisation, Mr Gebregesius, called for: he said that it would be good to ensure that we have vaccinated 10% of the world’s population by September and 30% by the end of the year. Think 200 countries, catalyse the concept of vaccination nationalism. The recent shift in US policy, following Biden’s election victory, is promising. The US is back on the international bandwagon, joining forces and funding the WHO. Slowly I think we are coming to realise that both the disease and the negative effects on society with increasing poverty will not be overcome if we do not have a minimum of unity.
In my opinion, all this is an exercise for future pandemics but mainly an exercise for the problems which we will face with climate change. The race for profits and geopolitical games are understood, and yet these are the motivations of high-level political leadership today. But they do not drive us well. These kinds of crises are bellwethers, we say in Greece, which we need to change priorities globally. I am very optimistic mainly because people are slowly beginning to understand that. Any initiative that has the human being at the centre and gives priority to the global, must take care of it and nurture it. Sooner or later, at a greater or lesser human cost, we will realise which we are a human village which can become a human nation by including and celebrating diversity but creating common consciousness.