In the fight against Covid-19, patents are deadly

Never before have scientists achieved so much success in such a short time. Just a year ago, doctors in China identified the new life-threatening virus, Sars CoV-2. It has spread at an alarming rate and has already claimed more than two million victims. But then, in less than 12 months, molecular biologists, doctors and engineers succeeded in doing what used to take 10 years or more: they developed five effective vaccines ready for production and use, and three more are about to be approved soon. This enormous achievement brought a grandiose undertaking within reach. Mankind could launch the biggest vaccination campaign ever and eradicate the virus within a short time. Victory over the disease could inspire and unite people across all borders. Global cooperation solves global problems — that would be the message.

But the governments of the Western industrialised countries, who like to invoke universal human rights, are about to squander this great opportunity. Their laws and contracts with the manufacturers ensure that the vaccination campaign will not reach half of humanity.

The data on vaccine purchases collected by the American Duke Institute documents the failure. As it shows, the high-income countries of the OECD — with just 17 per cent of the world’s population — have reserved for themselves 60 per cent of the annual vaccine production available by mid-January in 2021. Another political measure weighs even more heavily: the industrialised countries of the West refuse to pass on the technical knowledge free of charge to enable poorer countries to expand their own vaccine production. Instead, they allow their pharmaceutical companies to secure the technology against imitation through patents and to try to maximise their profits worldwide with the vaccine.

This is not only reprehensible for humanitarian reasons, but will also cause massive damage to the guardians of this vaccine oligopoly themselves. The longer the virus spreads unhindered in the world, the more dangerous the mutations that will develop, against which the vaccines will be ineffective. These will then spread worldwide again and the fight against the disease will be endless, with devastating economic and political consequences. In the case of the variant rampant in South Africa, this is exactly what has already happened. The government in Pretoria stopped vaccination with the vaccine purchased from AstraZeneca because it no longer helps. UN Secretary-General António Guterres summed up the consequence on Twitter: “No country will be safe from Covid-19 unless all countries are safe”, adding “Vaccine nationalism is not only unfair, it is self-defeating”.

But as obvious as this truth is, the governments of the affluent countries are negligent in ignoring it. Certainly, many OECD countries, including Germany and France, are participating in public-private partnership initiatives to bring vaccines to the poorer people under the leadership of the Gates Foundation. Under the umbrella of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the joint initiative COVAX was thus created. But its funding and reach are far too limited. As things stand, the programme will deliver a maximum of 2.3 billion doses of vaccine by the end of the year, reaching only one-fifth of the population COVAX is intended for.

This makes it all the more important to quickly create additional production capacities now. The companies and facilities are certainly available — but not the money to pay for licences on patents and the know-how for production. That is why, back in October, the governments of India and South Africa applied to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to suspend the current provisions on the protection of patent rights for Covid-19 drugs and vaccines until the pandemic is over. The WTO treaty on “trade-related intellectual property rights” (TRIPS) even explicitly provides for this in the case of an emergency. This is by no means just symbolism, assures trade lawyer Mustaqeem de Gama, who advises the South African embassy at the WTO. “A few companies own these rights, and they enter into exclusive licences that artificially limit production and drive prices up,” he told IE. “In the end, all of us have to wait longer for access and pay more for final products.”

But the US and the EU states rejected the proposal outright.. A spokeswoman for the responsible justice ministry in Germany said that “in the view of the German government, the proposal would not achieve its goal”. Rather, “the adequate protection of intellectual property rights provides an important market-based incentive for the development of medicines and vaccines by private companies,” she explained in embarrassing unison with the pharmaceutical lobby. “Even if patents were suspended, not a single additional dose would reach people in this pandemic,” claims Thomas Cueni, director-general of the international pharmaceutical association IMFPA, justifying the blockade. It would take three to five years to build a factory that could produce complex new vaccines.

However, these arguments are grossly misleading. The development of the Covid-19 vaccines was almost entirely paid for by the taxpayer. There is nothing “market-based” about it. The German company Biontech alone, whose vaccine is marketed worldwide by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, received around half a billion euros in subsidies and state credits. According to the organisation Doctors without Borders, AstraZeneca received about one and a half billion euros, and the US company Moderna even collected more than two billion. No one can justify why these state investments should now serve private profit-making for 20 years by means of patents, while billions of people continue to be exposed to the virus without protection and millions are threatened by viral death. The claim that the countries of the Global South will not be able to produce the vaccine in time is even more absurd. In Brazil, South Africa and many other countries, vaccine production has long existed and would only need to be retooled. India alone is the location for 60 per cent of the world’s vaccine production. The Serum Institute there has already acquired a licence from AstraZeneca to produce one billion doses. But they now cost more than 5 dollars per dose to export, more than double the price the EU governments pay and far too much for most poor countries. This policy is also simply stupid from a geopolitical point of view. For, while America and Europe protect the interests of their pharmaceutical corporations, governments in Russia and China willingly take advantage of this myopic policy, offering needy countries their vaccines largely at cost. If there is any moral high ground left anywhere for the Western democracies, with this policy it is most certainly going to be lost.

Only last week, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, together with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, wrote in an article for the world press that “the Covid-19 crisis is the greatest test of global solidarity in generations”. Therefore, a “strong and internationally coordinated response is needed that rapidly expands access to vaccines and recognises comprehensive immunisation as a global public good that must be available and affordable to all.”

Soon they will have the opportunity to prove that they mean these words. On March 10th, the WTO Council will meet again to decide on the request to suspend vaccine patents for Covid-19. If the Europeans side with the proponents, the necessary three-quarters majority is achievable. If not, their statements will be remembered as nothing more than hypocritical wordsmithing.

Contributor: Ingeborg Eliassen

Read more about our investigation on vaccine nationalism.