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Waive IP rights for COVID-19 vaccines and stop the pandemic

Pharmaceutical monopolies and the nationalization of vaccines will cause the pandemic to go on longer than it has to.

Opinion by Isaac Dektor, Staff Writer

The fastest way to end COVID-19 is to achieve herd immunity across the globe, not just in one country. However, there are two hindrances to the wide-spread distribution of vaccines around the world: intellectual property of vaccination recipes and the ability to build factories and procure the raw materials necessary to manufacture vaccines in low-income countries.

The vaccination rate around the world is practically non-existent while in a handful of wealthy countries like the U.S, Britain, Chile, and Israel 30 percent or more of the population has received at least one dose, according to Our World in Data. Unless vaccinations are distributed equitably around the world, the lockdowns of 2020 will happen again.

Achal Prabhala, Benny Kuruvilla, Burcu Kilic and Dana Brown — a group of writers, lawyers, and researchers — diagnosed the IP issue in a piece for the Guardian back in October 2020.

“A suspension of pharmaceutical monopolies, even temporary, is what the world needs,” they wrote. “It would mark a crucial turn in the right direction, in a moment of exhaustion and panic. As the COVID-19 pandemic aggressively advances, the WTO [World Trade Organization] has the opportunity to sway the planet away from monopoly medicine, and towards a new planetary health system.”

South Africa and India’s recent petition to the WTO that attempted to waive COVID-19 related intellectual property was opposed by wealthy countries including the U.S. and U.K., who claimed that removing intellectual property rights would stifle innovation. While IP rights for vaccinations have not yet been waived, the WTO talks are ongoing.

In addition to stifling innovation, the wealthy countries (that unsurprisingly contain the companies that have the IP rights over vaccinations) claim that, even if they waived IP rights, poorer countries would need to have factories approved and be given adequate funds to procure raw materials. While this is certainly true and a daunting task, surely it is a better path forward than the current one in which countries that cannot produce vaccines must wait for newly developed ones or until wealthy countries have surpluses and send the leftovers to them.

All of the Moderna and 96 percent of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines that will be produced in 2021 will go to 14 percent of the world’s population. At least 90 percent of people in low-income countries will not receive a single vaccination dose this year, according to The British Medical Journal.

Joel Abrams wrote in an article published in The Conversation — a network of nonprofit media outlets that publishes articles by academics and researchers — that the longer the virus is allowed to fester in countries around the world, the more likely it is that COVID-19 will mutate into more deadly and contagious variances. It is possible that vaccinated populations would not be shielded from such a variance.

“Think of it like an enemy altering their military uniform, becoming less recognizable to the opposing army,” Abrams wrote.

While it is heartening that the U.S. is on its way to achieving herd immunity through a high percentage of its population being vaccinated, globalization has created a world in which herd immunity cannot feasibly be viewed on a country by country basis.

“With the interconnectedness of countries and regions around the world, no single population lives in total seclusion,” wrote Abrams. “No particular population is safe unless all populations are safe.”

The vaccine hoarding and secrecy displayed by the wealthy countries of the world evokes a new rendition of an old adage about teaching a man how to fish: give a country vaccines and vaccinate a small amount of their population, or teach a country to make vaccinations and end COVID-19 before it mutates into something vaccines cannot fight.

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