Western countries should help India and South Africa buy licenses.
Gauri Khandekar is a researcher at the Brussels School of Governance at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Miguel Otero is senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid.
Global leaders finally seem to be catching on to the idea that no country will be safe from COVID-19 until most of the world’s population is vaccinated. But their well-intentioned statements will be meaningless if they continue to allow business interests and geopolitics to get in the way of a global vaccine rollout.
Production of the world’s most effective vaccines are concentrated in hands of a few top pharmaceutical companies, with rich countries first in line to receive the costly jabs and ordering up to four times the number they need to protect their population.
Meanwhile, despite new pledges at the G7 last week, only around 20 percent of the Global South can expect to receive vaccines from the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative by the end of 2021 at the earliest.
This is far too late, and the number of vaccines these countries will receive is far too low to produce herd immunity. And it has implications that go beyond the Global South, as it increases the likelihood that new, deadlier strains requiring new vaccines and distribution efforts will emerge.
If we really want to win the war against COVID-19 we need a more effective solution.
India and South Africa have already proposed a new approach at the World Trade Organization: to waive the COVID-19 vaccine patents so that these countries can mobilize their proven generic pharmaceuticals industries to produce more vaccines and distribute them faster.
Their case is compelling. In the midst of a global pandemic, a temporary patent waiver makes complete sense. India already produces 60 percent of the world’s vaccines, and the privately owned Serum Institute of India (SII) is currently producing the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine (known in India as Covishield) at the rate of 70 million to 80 million doses a month. Indian pharma value chains are extensive and more adaptable than the old industries in the West, which are set in their ways.
However, rich countries, led by the United States and the European Union, where these vaccines were generated, have rejected this initiative. They want to protect their pharmaceuticals industries against competition from emerging markets, including India, China and South Africa.
Their arguments are sensible too: If pharma companies are forced to hand over their intellectual property for free, they would lack the incentives to continue further research, potentially hampering the development of new vaccines that are effective against emerging COVID-19 strains.
There are also geopolitical considerations at play — on both sides — as countries jostle to get ahead in an emerging vaccine diplomacy race.
Just days after it began inoculating its own population, India started to donate millions of its indigenous vaccines to other countries. New Delhi has also pledged more than 1 billion coronavirus vaccines this year to various countries and to the COVAX initiative. China and Russia too have been selling or donating their own domestically produced vaccines, especially in Africa.
Recognizing the West’s erosion of influence, French President Emmanuel Macron called for 3 to 5 percent of the European and U.S. vaccines supply to be sent to developing countries. Shortly after, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the EU would double its contribution to the COVAX scheme from €500 million to €1 billion and pledged a further €100 million in humanitarian assistance for the rollout of vaccination in Africa.
But while everyone wants to be seen playing the savior, there is no cooperation between the major players. This means we are stuck in a stalemate: The EU and the U.S. remain unwilling to accept the patent waivers, while India and South Africa remain unwilling or unable to pay pharma companies for the licenses necessary to produce the vaccines.
The solution must, therefore, be found elsewhere.
If the problem is that the licenses are too expensive, or that South African and India are unwilling to pay such large sums, then the EU and the U.S. should help subsidize these purchases. It is, after all, in their interest to do so.
It is important to highlight here that the solution should be negotiated. Compulsory licensing, as some have advocated, would give rise to the same problems as a patent waiver — though the prospect can certainly be used as a pressure mechanism to reduce the license price.
The best option going forward is to opt for value-based purchases of the intellectual property rights or licenses, as suggested by Elias Mossialos, professor of public health at the London School of Economics, among others.
This strategy would satisfy all actors. Pharmaceutical companies would be fairly compensated. The EU and the U.S. could claim credit for financing the endeavor. India and South Africa (and many others) would be able to produce the vaccines we need.
Given the high stakes involved, an agreement of this caliber might only be achieved at the highest political level. The G20, under the Italian presidency of Mario Draghi’s new government, could be the most suitable platform to convene an extraordinary meeting of the parties involved.
If the goal is to get to the end of this pandemic, it would be foolish not to harness the idle production capacity in India and elsewhere as soon as possible. The faster we arrive to global herd immunity the better — for everybody.