As rich countries that have hoarded vaccine doses and technology for months begin to accelerate their reopenings as coronavirus case counts level off or decline, India, Brazil, Nepal, Thailand, and other developing nations are in the grip of deadly and uncontrolled Covid-19 surges that experts fear could prolong the global pandemic and endanger the entire world.
"The world needs between 10 and 15 billion vaccine doses, but so far the big producers that enjoy patent protection have produced only about 1.4 billion doses this year."
—Robert Kuttner, The American Prospect
On Tuesday, India became the second nation after the United States to surpass the 20 million-case mark, with the South Asian country reporting at least 357,000 new infections and 3,449 deaths over just the past 24 hours—the latest figures from a wave that is overwhelming strained hospitals and leaving facilities with fatal shortages of oxygen and other critical supplies.
While India's current coronavirus surge is the worst in the world, it is not the only nation experiencing alarming increases in case totals and deaths—trends potentially fueled by more contagious variants that are running rampant among largely unvaccinated populations. India, which is facing a severe shortage of vaccines that could persist for months, has fully inoculated just over 2% of its roughly 1.3 billion residents.
As Bloomberg reported Tuesday morning, in addition to India, "nations ranging from Laos to Thailand in Southeast Asia, and those bordering India such as Bhutan and Nepal, have been reporting significant surges in infections in the past few weeks."
The outlet continued:
In Laos last week, the health minister sought medical equipment, supplies and treatment, as cases jumped more than 200-fold in a month. Nepal is seeing hospitals quickly filling up and running out of oxygen supplies. Health facilities are under pressure in Thailand, where 98% of new cases are from a more infectious strain of the pathogen, while some island nations in the Pacific Ocean are facing their first Covid waves.
Although nowhere close to India's population or flare-up in scope, the reported spikes in these handful of nations have been far steeper, signaling the potential dangers of an uncontrolled spread. The resurgence—and first-time outbreaks in some places that largely avoided the scourge last year—heightens the urgency of delivering vaccine supplies to poorer, less influential countries and averting a protracted pandemic.
On Wednesday and Thursday, member nations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) are set to meet to discuss India and South Africa's patent waiver proposal, which proponents say would help enable generic manufacturers to replicate vaccine formulas and ramp up global production.
"India is in crisis. President Biden's decision to send supplies and vaccine doses to India is a necessary one. But we must also eliminate vaccine patents—and work to expand vaccine production and availability globally."
—Rep. Cori Bush
But rich countries such as the U.S., United Kingdom, and European Union members have thus far blocked the waiver, keeping global production under the control of the pharmaceutical industry and entrenching massive inequities in vaccine access. According to one recent estimate, the U.S. could have 300 million extra vaccine doses by the end of July as some developing countries struggle to obtain and administer a single shot.
While rich countries have pledged to donate vaccine doses and ship raw materials to India and other developing nations in dire need, progressive civil society organizations, public health experts, and some U.S. lawmakers argue that vaccine charity and voluntary bilateral deals are not sufficient to address supply shortages that could leave people in low-income countries without access to shots until 2024.
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"India is in crisis," Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) tweeted Monday. "President Biden's decision to send supplies and vaccine doses to India is a necessary one. But we must also eliminate vaccine patents—and work to expand vaccine production and availability globally. We must work to save lives everywhere."
The American Prospect's Robert Kuttner noted Tuesday that "the world needs between 10 and 15 billion vaccine doses, but so far the big producers that enjoy patent protection have produced only about 1.4 billion doses this year."
"Only with the intellectual-property waiver and the mobilization of worldwide production capacity, some of it ironically in India, can the supply meet the demand and the human need," Kuttner argued.
Jayati Ghosh, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who previously taught at India's Jawaharlal Nehru University, said in an appearance on Democracy Now! late last week that "the catastrophe in India...is actually a man-made catastrophe, because it really reflects a government that had become casual, irresponsible, and, in fact, actively engaged in superspreader events"—a reference to far-right Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent political rallies.
"I think we haven't seen the worst of it yet," warned Ghosh. "It is beyond horror, what is happening. I have friends and colleagues who have died for lack of oxygen. It's unbelievable, what is happening. Yet, this is not yet the worst. Obviously, what needs to be done as soon as possible is vaccinate as many people as can be done."
Ghosh went on to argue that in order to address the "artificial shortage" of vaccine doses around the world, WTO member nations must temporarily suspend vaccine-related intellectual property protections at the WTO and end the pharmaceutical industry's monopoly control over manufacturing.
"There is enough production capacity for vaccines in the world today to vaccinate 60% of the population by the end of this year, the global population, if we waive the intellectual property rights and transfer the knowledge for making these vaccines to all the different producers in different parts of the world who are willing to make it," said Ghosh.
"It's actually not just a moral imperative—of course, it is—but it is sensible," she added. "If you do not contain this virus, you're going to get these new mutant variants that were talked about, and you will have to have the whole process over again in your own countries. So it's in the interests of rich country populations to suspend these patents right now."