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A woman walks past a notice announcing unavailability of Covid-19 vaccine doses.

A woman walks past the entrance of a closed vaccination center that was shut due to a shortage of Covid-19 vaccine doses in Mumbai on July 9, 2021. (Photo: Punit Paranjpe/AFP via Getty Images)

'Humanity Must Stand Together': Top Medical Ethicists Demand Vaccine Patent Waivers

"We will look back in anger and I think we will look back in shame" if wealthy countries do not ensure vaccine doses are distributed globally, said one WHO official.

Julia Conley

Two medical ethicists are the latest to argue that the World Trade Organization must lift patent protections on Covid-19 vaccines to save lives both in the Global South, where inoculations against the virus are lagging, and in wealthy countries which is likely to face future infectious disease outbreaks if they continue hoarding the supplies needed to fight the current public health crisis.

In a paper published Sunday, bioethics professor Nancy Jecker of the University of Washington and health ethicist Caesar Atuire of the University of Ghana wrote that policymakers in wealthy countries "must show the high degree of social responsibility the moment calls for" by ensuring the vaccines produced by companies including Pfizer and Moderna are distributed to poor and middle-income countries, where only about 1% of the population is vaccinated. 

"Everyone, but especially wealthier nations, needs to help develop vaccine-manufacturing capacity in low- and middle-income countries because Covid-19 unfortunately won't be the last pandemic the world faces."
—Nancy Jecker, University of Washington

"Global solidarity underscores that during the Covid-19 pandemic, each nation’s interests are entwined with the interests of every other," the paper reads. "Just as it is impossible for any nation standing alone to address the threat to human health climate change raises, it is impossible for any single nation to meet the challenge that Covid-19 and future pandemics present. Instead, humanity must stand together."
 
The authors wrote that the WTO should temporarily waive the 1995 Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, which protects intellectual property rights for pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the vaccines.
 
Jecker and Atuire noted in a statement that more than 100 Nobel laureates, U.S. President Joe Biden, and dozens of former heads of state have expressed support for a TRIPS waiver amid reports that Covid-19 infections are on the rise in countries including Tunisia, Thailand, and Namibia, where less than 5% of people are fully vaccinated. 
 
"Everyone, but especially wealthier nations, needs to help develop vaccine-manufacturing capacity in low- and middle-income countries because Covid-19 unfortunately won't be the last pandemic the world faces," Jecker said in a statement. "It will benefit all of us to transfer technology, to transfer know-how and to start building supplies."
 
The paper was published in the Journal of Medical Ethics as the World Health Organization denounced efforts in wealthy nations like the U.S. and Britain to gain approval for booster shots—third doses of Covid-19 vaccines for added protection against the highly transmissable Delta variant, when billions of people worldwide have not received one dose. 
 
"We will look back in anger and I think we will look back in shame" if pharmaceutical companies are permitted to distribute booster shots in rich countries at this point in the pandemic, Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO's health emergencies program, told the Associated Press Monday.
 
Representatives from Pfizer met with U.S. officials Monday to discuss potential Food and Drug Administration approval for a booster shot, which the company says could significantly increase immunity in people who have had two doses of its vaccine. 
 
Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO’s chief scientist, noted that "there is no scientific evidence to suggest that boosters are definitely needed."
 
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus condemned the "greed" of wealthy countries that are considering booster doses and demanded that Pfizer and Moderna  "go all out to supply [United Nations vaccine facility] COVAX, the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, and low- and middle-income countries with very little coverage."
 
Dozens of countries are currently stalled in their vaccination drives and the Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine producer, has said it won't export any more vaccines doses until the end of 2021. 
 
With countries all over the world struggling to protect their populations as people in highly-vaccinated areas of the U.S. begin to return to their pre-pandemic routines, Jecker said, "I do not think these restrictions [on vaccine patents] are ethically defensible."
 
"I would be happy to see a temporary waiver enacted and set a precedent, so that when we are in the next global health crisis, we can make changes again and adapt to protect people," she said.
 
Instead, Jecker said, Pfizer and Moderna are being permitted to protect their profits while the WTO considers two proposals for lifting patent protections: one which would waive patents on Covid-19 medical products "until widespread vaccination is in place globally" and one which would enable manufacturers in the Global South to license vaccines for production. 
 
Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are expected to rake in between $10 billion and $30 billion this year following their vaccine distributions, which have included only small supplies to COVAX.
 
"One of the main ethical justifications for maintaining IP protections is that profits are necessary to spur innovation and discovery," Jecker said. "But how much money does it take?"

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