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Get Rid of the Patents on COVID-19 Vaccines Already

The spread of COVID-19 anywhere on the planet threatens us all, yet Big Pharma’s monopoly on the vaccine supply ensures that people in most of the world aren't getting inoculated. In this appeal, left-wing figures like Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Rafael Correa, and former Brazilian president Lula call on governments to lift the patents and ensure vaccines are distributed as cheaply and quickly as possible.

A medical professional prepares to administer a vaccine. (Wikipedia Commons)

For a year now, humanity has been confronted with the coronavirus epidemic. More than 2 million people have already died of this disease around the world. Billions of human beings’ existence has been disrupted by lockdowns and all the restrictions deployed in the fight against the health crisis. The biggest victims have been the poor: though they live in overcrowded housing where the virus spreads more easily, and do the jobs that leave them most exposed, they often have limited access to good-quality health care. Many people hit hard by the temporary economic shutdown have themselves been pushed into poverty.

At the end of 2020, vaccines started to be authorized in many parts of the world. They were developed in record time, and there are already multiple kinds, reliant on different scientific techniques. This success results from the extraordinary mobilization of thousands of researchers around the world, especially in universities and other public institutions. It’s also the consequence of investment by states — that is, by peoples all over the world — who have committed over $10 billion to vaccine research alone.

Yet today, a handful of Big Pharma multinationals are cornering all the benefits. US corporate giant Pfizer forecasts that sales of its vaccine will rake in $15 billion for the firm in 2021. The vaccines are vital for humanity, but they’re being treated as a commodity: private businesses decide who to deliver them to, and at what price. This privatization of the vaccines, which the World Health Organization calls a “common good,” is hobbling their distribution. Indeed, a minority of rich countries has appropriated the bulk of the available doses. In the rest of the world, some states have to pay 2.5 times the price for the same vaccines. While Oxfam has estimated that, for vaccine access to be truly universal, each dose must cost no more than $3.40, for the moment, that is far from the case. Even in Europe, private pharma firms are unable to produce and deliver vaccines as quickly as they promised.

That’s why we’re calling for a lifting of the patents on vaccines, as well as future COVID-19 treatments. Money can’t be a brake on global public health. In many countries, there are free-licensing, ex-officio licensing, and compulsory-licensing mechanisms which allow vaccines to be freely produced and distributed. We are calling on the leaders of these countries to use these tools as quickly as possible. Such action will make it possible to push down vaccine costs and accelerate their production — and could save millions of human lives.

In early January, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned that, faced with mounting ecological damage, we could enter into an “era of pandemics.” We will not be able to confront this if we prioritize private interests and the coffers of Big Pharma. Rather, we have to build a global society based on mutual aid. We can begin that work right away by showing that anti-COVID-19 vaccines and treatments are a common good.