These are truly testing times, even for political philosophies upheld by nations. Recently, a group of 175 eminent personalities mostly comprising Nobel laureates and former world leaders wrote to US president Joe Biden, seeking “urgent action” to suspend intellectual property rights for Covid vaccines. The letter campaign has come just days after India and South Africa reiterated a similar appeal to the WTO. The proposal, first tabled in October 2020, has found the backing of over a 100 nations.
Is a waiver on patents for Covid vaccines necessary? Even as the spirit of vaccine nationalism runs high across the world, scientists have, in no unclear terms, explained that Covid cannot be brought under control unless all nations have equitable access to vaccines, drugs and testing kits. A significant failure in ensuring this equity, many experts believe, is the primary reason why a second wave was experienced after the success of initial containment measures.
Even now, as India is witnessing a second wave, equity is not a part of global policy on tackling Covid. As per estimates, the world needs around 11 billion doses of vaccines to immunise at least 70% of the global population. Of these 11 billion, orders have been confirmed for 8.6 billion doses, of which a substantial 6 billion are for high and upper-middle income countries, says an analysis in Nature. In fact, half the doses administered so far have been in Europe and North America, while poorer nations which account for 80% of the global population—have access to less than one-thirds of the available doses.
Considering these data, it’s imperative that nations decide upon a patent waiver, not just on vaccines but on all treatment requirements. As noted economist Joseph Stiglitz pointed out, pharma firms have already made considerable profits through public funding made available for vaccine research. A temporary waiver will not cause them any harm. The key here is to put public good ahead of private profits, which means taking a step back from traditional capitalist approaches to reassess our response to this crisis.