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COVID-19 Vaccines - Good Intentions, Bad Strategy?

The fight against Coronavirus, the disease that transformed our lives for more than a year and a half, seems to be well underway. The immunization programme is taking up its pace, currently counting more than 1.31 billion doses administered on a worldwide scale. However, this silver lighting appears to conceal many more struggles ahead. Indeed, of the 8.6% of the global population who received a shot, 83% of the doses were offered to high and upper-middle-income countries and only 0.3% to low income ones. This stark difference brings richer countries to have a roll-out 25 times faster than less wealthy nations. Western governments have an advantage in tackling the pandemic, with overall better health care organization and greater opportunities to fabricate and inoculate the medicine.

In an attempt to reduce the global unequal shots’ distribution, last week the United States announced its willingness to temporarily lift vaccines’ licenses to boost worldwide production. This declaration sparked great debate among nations and pharmaceuticals companies, demarcating between pro and against factions, and ultimately wondering whether Biden administration's "good intentions" could truly serve as a solution to the fight against the disease's disparity.

In Autumn 2020, India and South Africa called upon the World Trade Organization (WTO) to revoke the concessions on COVID-19 treatment and medications. This view has since then gathered momentum, bringing together more than 100 countries. The main argument upheld by this faction is that waiving patents would make shots widely available to every country, allowing low-income nations to manufacture the vaccine locally and therefore, accelerate injections’ availability. This assertion is based on the idea that wealthier nations' protection of intellectual property and medical treatments is a barrier to equal worldwide access to the illness' cure.

At first, the suggestion was met by wide criticism from Western countries - including the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom - and pharmaceutical companies. However, in opposition to its predecessor, last week the Biden administration announced its support for the developing nations’ proposal and backed the temporary lift of patents. By fulfilling one of his 2020 presidential election campaign's promises, Joe Biden was acting according to the idea that "nobody is protected until everyone is protected". Nevertheless, this declaration was widely contested and sparked great debate amongst Western countries.

In particular, European leaders swiftly reacted, claiming that patents waiver could not be a short time solution to the health crisis and that other easier steps, such as the lifting of exports, should be prioritised. Indeed, even though the head of the WTO referred to this decision as a "monumental moment", Italian prime minister, Luigi di Maio, stated that "(B)efore getting to the liberalisation of vaccines, other simpler things should be done, such as removing the export block that today the US firstly and the UK continue to maintain". This claim clearly echoed Emmanuel Macron, the French president's statement that "(T)he key to producing vaccines more quickly for poor countries and developing countries is to produce more, to lift export bans". Moreover, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, argued that the strategy to counter the contamination comes from "production capacities and the high-quality standards, not the patents" and that "the protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so".

Even if European governments opposed the American declaration, they are nevertheless willing to examine the United States' proposal to draft a constructive method to tackle the crisis. In particular, Europe would look favourably to American participation in its mission to become the "pharmacy of the world" and contribute to the injections' worldwide exportation.

The opposition from the European block was backed by pharmaceutical companies which experienced a sharp fall in their financial shares as a result of the United States' decision.

Some of the main arguments advocated by the pharma-makers are that not only this measure will not have a short term impact because of the complex negotiation it will entail, but in the long run it will also hinder future research investments. This opposition was upheld by the director of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, who said that "(T)he real bottlenecks are trade barriers preventing companies moving their goods from one country to another, shortage and scarcity in supply chains, and right now the disappointing unwillingness of rich countries to early share doses with poor countries". Finally, numerous leading health experts consider the American decision as fundamentally flawed because it fails to understand the complexities that make up the medicines' manufacturing process. An instance of this was affirmed by Rajeev Venkayya, head of Takeda vaccines - an influential pharmaceutical company - who commented that "nearly all of the people who are providing views on the value of removing patent protections have zero experience in vaccine development and manufacturing".

Only time and heated debates will tell us whether the medications' licences temporary lift will be adopted and what results might this strategy lead to. As Charles Michel - the president of the European Council - has affirmed, this measure will not be the "magic bullet" to tackle the spread. Instead, it should be regarded as one of a series of actions required to adequately face this issue. What is clear is that a common and pragmatic strategy is not only needed but is a necessary responsibility to tackle the health crisis that has now ravaged the world. Faced with the disastrous outbreak affecting India, an international response for a coordinated shots programme is fundamental. The question is whether world leaders will be able to match the virus' swift pace and counter the quick spreading of the Indian variant which has now expanded to 44 countries worldwide and has become the second most common COVID-19 strand in the United Kingdom.


Written by Cinzia Saro


Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.


Photograph: Official White House Photo |Wikimedia.org