Ensuring a Covid-19 vaccine is accessible to all

By Tamara Somasundaram

There have been huge scientific breakthroughs in the development of a Covid-19 vaccine over the last few weeks. Vaccine candidates from Pfizer and Moderna are both in late-stage trials, with an over 95% efficacy rate. And now the Oxford vaccine, in partnership with AstraZeneca, has revealed a 70% efficacy rate. Still, this is only one step in the attempt to control the virus and return to normality. Work needs to be done to ensure even distribution. Although Oxford and AstraZeneca have pledged to increase access for developing countries by making their vaccine not-for-profit, problems still remain.

There has been a lack of international cooperation to suspend the practices that impede the equal distribution of a vaccine. A few rich nations, such as the UK, US, and Japan, have already hoarded many of the vaccines, which could leave low-income countries with very little. Pfizer has already sold 80% of their doses in advance to countries which represent just 14% of the world population. And it’s a similar situation with Moderna, with 78% of their vaccines being sold to countries representing just 12% of the global population.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

However, AstraZeneca have assured that their vaccine will operate on a not-for-profit basis, as long as Covid-19 is classified as a pandemic. It will remain not-for-profit for developing countries beyond that time, too. This means that it is much more affordable, with some lower-middle income countries, such as Egypt and Indonesia, already securing deals.  The AstraZeneca vaccine can also be stored at refrigerator temperature, which is good news for lower-income countries that don’t have the infrastructural capacity to store the Pfizer vaccine at its required -70 degrees Celsius.

Significantly too, AstraZeneca are part of the COVAX vaccine alliance formed by the World Health Organization (WHO), while Pfizer and Moderna are yet to reach an agreement to supply their vaccines to this programme. Two-thirds of countries globally are signed up to COVAX. All participating countries, regardless of income levels, will have equal access to the vaccines secured by the alliance. Its aim is to have two billion doses available by the end of 2021, which would vaccinate around 20% of the population in each country.

Despite this, nations that are signed up can still secure their own bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies, as seen in the scramble to buy up vaccine doses by rich countries. Though AstraZeneca hope to produce 3 billion doses by the end of 2021, almost half of these doses have already been bought by countries including the UK, China, and Brazil, who already have bought other companies’ vaccines, too. Nations like the US and UK are well prepared to cover their entire population, compared to other countries which have just covered a fraction.

The issue of intellectual property rights

Even though Covid-19 is a global health issue, there has evidently been a lack of global cooperation to ensure that the disease can mostly be eliminated. There aren’t any legally binding measures to stop private companies from carrying out their normal practices. For instance, a company could patent their vaccine, which means that public health bodies are not allowed to make their own generic versions. This artificially restricts the number of doses which can be produced, meaning that there wouldn’t be enough to meet global demand for a long time.

There have been some efforts to address this issue. The WHO’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool encourages public and private companies to voluntarily share Covid-19-related knowledge, intellectual property, and data with public health organisations. Additionally, last month, South Africa and India proposed a waiver of these intellectual property rights to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This would stop companies from using patents on any prevention, containment, or treatment mechanism for Covid-19. However, this was rejected by rich members of the WTO, such as the EU, US, Norway, and the UK, despite being supported by lower-income countries including Bangladesh, Chad, and Nepal.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

This idea is also not popular with pharmaceutical companies. Although Moderna have decided not to enforce patents on their vaccine candidate during the pandemic, AstraZeneca don’t appear to be making any such promise. Their chief executive, Pascal Soriot, has argued that “intellectual property rights are a fundamental part of our industry.” Intellectual property rights have been justified by the idea that they promote the creation and commercialisation of new inventions, including vaccines. However, this pandemic is costing the global economy US $375 billion every month, with devastating impacts on the world’s most vulnerable. Ostensibly, governments and companies should come together and suspend orthodox rules for the greater public good.

Vaccines as a global public good

GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, argue that disease eradication through vaccination should be a global public good. This would remove barriers, such as high access costs and intellectual property rights, to life-saving vaccines. However, this comes into direct conflict with drugs companies, who generally operate on a profit-making basis.

This doesn’t have to be the case.  “Could you patent the sun?”  was the famous response by Jonas Salk when asked if he would patent the polio vaccine he created. Instead of being viewed as a profit-making entity, this sees vaccination as a good in itself. The more people who are vaccinated, the greater chance there is of creating community immunity. Governments should be doing everything in their power to end the barriers to access to medicines and vaccines. For example, Brazil lifted patents on a HIV medicine as it was argued to be in the public interest.

It is clear that there needs to be more collaboration between private companies and governments. The pledge made by AstraZeneca is a step in the right direction. But it shouldn’t be left to the will of private entities to pursue not-for-profit mechanisms.  There should be a global agreement that sees Covid-19 treatments and vaccines as a global public good, as it is in everyone’s best interest.

If you want to find out more, check out these campaigns for suspending patents on Covid-19 vaccines:

Access Campaign

Global Justice Now  

Tamara is a master’s student in International Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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