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As Fears Grow Over Covid Vaccine Delays, Watchdog Asks: 'Why Are We Allowing Big Pharma's Patents to Artificially Limit Supply?'

"It's just wrong that big business is deciding who gets vaccinated, with zero transparency. We must scrap patents and massively scale up production globally."

People queue in bad weather to enter a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Folkestone, Kent, during England's third national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus on Friday January 29, 2021.

People queue in bad weather to enter a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Folkestone, Kent, during England's third national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus on Friday January 29, 2021. (Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)

"Could you patent the sun?"

That was Jonas Salk's famous response when asked in 1955 who owned the patent for one of the first successful polio vaccines, which the American virologist was instrumental in developing.

"Every available manufacturer in the world should be producing these vaccines, and governments should be doing whatever it takes to increase manufacturing capacity for the whole world." 
—Nick Dearden, Global Justice Now

Salk believed the vaccine should belong to "the people," not profit-seeking corporations—an argument with particular resonance during the present coronavirus pandemic, as artificial scarcity created by government-granted patent protections leaves hundreds of millions of people in developing nations without access to effective vaccines and pits people in wealthier nations against one another in a life-or-death battle for vials.

With the global coronavirus death toll now over the two million mark and new mutations spreading, the European Union and Britain in recent days have descended into a bitter and potentially destructive fight over vaccine shipments, leading the 27-nation E.U. to threaten export restrictions on vaccines amid growing public anger over production delays and shortages.

"The notoriously tricky manufacturing of vaccines is only part of the problem," the New York Times noted in a Wednesday report on what it called the "vaccine wars" raging in Europe. "Public health experts say the entire global system of buying doses, pitting one country against another with little regard for equity, is unfit to the task of ending a pandemic that respects no borders."

Nick Dearden, director of U.K.-based advocacy group Global Justice Now, warned in a statement Friday morning that the ongoing vaccine dispute between Britain and the E.U. "will be the first of many and could lead the world down a dangerous path" unless "we fundamentally change who controls the supply of vaccines," which have been developed with the help of large infusions of public funding.

"There is a lot of focus on what will happen to the current limited doses, but the bigger question is why are we allowing Big Pharma's patents to artificially limit the supply of these vital vaccines?" Dearden asked. "Every available manufacturer in the world should be producing these vaccines, and governments should be doing whatever it takes to increase manufacturing capacity for the whole world."

As the Times reported Wednesday, "Pfizer informed the European Union and other countries outside the United States this month that it had to drastically cut its vaccine deliveries until mid-February to upgrade its plants in order to ramp up output, adding to the severe supply problems facing the region."

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"But it was AstraZeneca's sudden announcement last week that it would cut deliveries in February and March by 60 percent, that really upended European Union vaccination plans," the Times explained. "Many countries had built their strategies around expectations of millions of those doses of that vaccine, which is cheaper and easier to store than others, in the first quarter of the year. AstraZeneca said it was having production troubles at one of its factories."

Instead of allowing "a handful of massively wealthy corporations" to dictate production and decide who receives vaccines first, Dearden argued that governments should immediately suspend patent protections "and work together to ramp up supply now."

A coalition of nearly 100 countries led by India and South Africa—with the backing of the World Health Organization (WHO)—is currently petitioning the World Trade Organization (WTO) to do just that, calling for a suspension of certain intellectual property rights in the interest of ensuring global vaccine access as poor nations are increasingly at risk of being left behind.

But the international effort has been stymied by opposition from the governments of the United States and Europe, which continue to insist—in the face of rapidly mounting evidence to the contrary—that strict patent protections are "part of the solution rather than an obstacle."

"I don't understand how governments of the world are able to outsource their responsibility for public health to a few companies that are able to hold them all ransom," Mustaqeem De Gama, counselor at the South African mission to the WTO, lamented last November.

In a blog post earlier this week, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) argued that the "logical path" toward ensuring equitable global vaccine distribution "would have been to open-source all research on treatments and vaccines, both so that progress could be made as quickly as possible, and also intellectual property rights would not be an obstacle to large-scale production throughout the world."

"The big problem, of course, is that going this route of open-source research and international cooperation could call into question the merits of patent monopoly financing of prescription drug research," Baker noted. "After all, if publicly funded open-source research proved to be the best mechanism for financing the development of drugs and vaccines in a pandemic, maybe this would be the case more generally."

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