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Covid-19 Vaccine Patents And Their Obstacles

It has been two years since citizens worldwide were plunged into the greatest health crisis since the Spanish flu burst onto the public scene in 1918: the Covid-19 pandemic. After a long period of confinement in westernized societies that have been able to afford it, voluntary isolation of entire communities, and implementation of emergency measures by states, societies are now experiencing a period of greater calm, or at least that is what is being said. While in the Global North containment measures are being reduced in line with the large number of vaccinations, something different is happening in the Global South: new variants of the virus are constantly emerging and threatening the population, which has no means to combat such a catastrophe. The problem has clear characteristics: while more than seven billion vaccines have been distributed to rich countries, only 300 million have been allocated to developing countries (Aparicio Wihelmi and Ruiz Díaz-Reixa, 2021). The facilities provided for defence against the proliferation of the virus vary widely among countries. It is not a question of the possibilities that each state is capable of developing, but rather that the context is drawn beforehand: it limits some while expanding the range of options for others.

Figure 1: Covid-19 Global Vaccine Tracker (June 15, 2021)

The scenario is as follows: faced with the threat of a global virus such as Covid-19, the various containment measures being designed to curb its expansion are inevitably linked to the economic capacities of the different states. Thus, those nations that can afford to pause their economies, although not without adverse effects, do so intermittently. While those whose subsistence heavily depends on precarious production jobs with which they provide richer states with the means and resources necessary to maintain their status, find themselves at the crossroads of not being able to pause their social systems, because of the risk of leading to a deep crisis.

The big pharmaceutical companies have come up with different versions of the vaccine against the virus to remedy such an unsustainable situation. In reality, though, they have focused their efforts on those countries whose income would be sufficient to provide a buying and selling exercise in line with their expectations. Therefore, people in the Global North who have already received three doses of the vaccine far outnumber those who have only been inoculated once in the Global South. Such inequalities in the distribution of public and global health goods have been caused not only by the interests of the pharmaceutical companies but also by the different states and their social policies, as well as by the general public, who have fallen prey to the fear of the global threat of the virus. Hence, if there are so many agents at stake, the issue of patents appears to be a structural injustice, which acquires importance insofar as, by conceiving the vaccine as a trade product, it prevents its mass reproduction in other laboratories outside the big corporations. This results in an indisputable seizure of power, which places big pharma industries as the single providers of global health; not without their actions being conditioned by the effects of the law of supply and demand. However, not all governments have entered into this mercantile game. There have been some that have positioned themselves against it, such as the Indian and South African ones. But just when they were in the process of presenting "a proposal to approve an exemption from intellectual property rights on vaccines, medicines and technologies associated with the prevention and treatment of Covid-19", the Omicron variant appeared, cancelling the call and postponing the process with no expected resumption date (Aparicio Wihelmi and Ruiz Díaz-Reixa, 2021).

Figure 2: Covid vaccine, Harvard Gazette

Although the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the vaccines as essential and highlighted their role as a global public good, there are many systemic intricacies involving states, pharmaceutical companies and citizens that prevent vaccines from being conceived in this way. The Doha Declaration, for instance, formulated 20 years ago, makes it possible for any company that considers it necessary to manufacture medical supplies for underdeveloped countries, as long as it notifies the World Trade Organization (WTO) beforehand. Therefore, in theory, there is no impediment to mass inoculation in poor countries, although in practice the results are quite different. Many interests, regulations and budgets determine the final destination of injection doses that are already well known in the West. However, there are still those who argue that the issue of patents is unimportant because, even if the distribution of vaccines was universalized, there would still be problems of distribution and maintenance of vaccines in developing countries (Arganda, 2021). As can be seen, the drawbacks are numerous and, as if that were not enough, there is an aura of mistrust that further enhances the legitimization of inequalities while reproducing the differences that, per se, were already spreading from north to south and from east to west.

Access to vaccination not only influences the health of citizens but also directly intervenes in the social and political processes of the different countries by determining the levels of restriction of activities that ensure the effective development of their economies. Thus, the states that have the least access to the vaccine against Covid-19, besides being the poorest, become even poorer as they are forced to implement more extreme containment measures, such as confinements or states of alarm. While in Europe and North America individuals breathe the tranquillity of non-fatal contagions, in the rest of the world the economy and health remain have stalled, patiently waiting for a call that comes from generosity and empathy but that, however, is held back by an institutionalized capitalism that challenges it.

Figure 3: Protesters at Moderna’s Cambridge headquarters call for vaccine patent waivers, expanded global access – The Boston Globe

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1 Comment

Nora Schmel
Nora Schmel
Feb 14, 2022

Even though we get daily updates on the covid news, there is so much left unsaid. This article highlights some important issues!!

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Alicia Macías Recio

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