Yesterday, after deliberate discussions through diplomatic and political channels, US president Joe Biden finally agreed to back the joint proposal of India and South Africa at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to waive intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines, given the supply-demand constraints it currently creates and the high opportunity for vaccine tech specialised markets like India to leverage their expertise to create large scale vaccines for the world.
This proposal is already backed by over 100 other nations including France, Canada, New Zealand, with the French president Emmanuel Macron going on to say he is “absolutely in favour”.
To give more context, currently, nobody in the world can create a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, except their own facilities and any other contractual affiliations they might have.
This is completely fair, given they have spent time and resources on preparing the vaccine and now, how can they share their recipe and secrets to “any” other company.
Being a healthcare consultant, who regularly oversees the multi-year product cycles of pharma, MedTech products, this is something that makes absolute sense to me.
You spend years of research creating something. It involves “a lot” of hit and trial. And then finally, you have a recipe that can help the disease and fetch your returns on investment.
Except in today’s times, add to this — this recipe can also actually,
SAVE THE WORLD.
But the profit equation doesn’t count for this variable.
In spite of our best efforts to act together as “one world, one fight”, be as humanly considerate as possible, the real-world data clearly shows the disparity of vaccinations amongst the different nations, biased by their economic output.
And this is not to blame the richer economies for having more funds and better access to vaccines.
This is to present the irony that even nations with sufficient money, like India, are not able to get their people vaccinated.
The irony turns into despondency when India is clocking the highest no. of daily new corona cases in the world, since the start of the pandemic.
So, where’s the gap?
Vaccine supply is very, very limited.
No one in the world, except if they live under a rock or don’t watch the news, is unaware of the catastrophe India is facing due to various strains of mutants suddenly sky-rocketing in the highly populated regions of India.
And it’s not just India. India is just the first one affected by the new strains. More countries, like Thailand, Nepal, are now entering their most dangerous wave since the start of the pandemic.
As it appears, the only way to stop these unprecedented waves of covid is the vaccination of people.
It is a proven fact, with nations such as Israel, that after hitting a certain threshold (more than 50% in their case) the nation achieves a sort of herd immunity that does not eliminate the virus, but prevents it from growing uncontrollably. At an individual level too, this observation is backed by several scientific studies that a vaccinated individual is much more unlikely to have any sort of serious complication, even if they contract the virus somehow.
But right now, there are not enough doses to vaccinate the world. There is not even enough to vaccinate the vulnerable groups in developing nations. While they can try their very best to flex any sort of diplomacy they have, the truth is, the money (of the richest nations) always reigns in and forces them to stand back.
The thing with Covid is, it doesn’t care about our economics. In an ever-global world, the pandemic is never non-dangerous, until it is contained properly across the world.
You can be happily vaccinated, but if the virus is freely propagating in other nations, it will mutate, it will develop into a more resistant strain, and it can fail the current vaccines with no prior notice. Which again pulls us back to ground zero.
This is a fact all nations, all global organisations and all companies know to be true.
Just the money is just so good, that you can wait for a new strain to come, for another chance to re-monetise your pockets.
I don’t intend to be devilish. I’m not a critic of healthcare companies and their monetisation strategies.
Of course, the pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca have done more good to human civilizations than we can ever quantify.
If it were not for them, probably we could have still fought enough, but at far devastating economic and societal costs. But today’s need is to go a step more than they would ever get comfortable with.
To share your IP property with someone is akin to sharing your Michelin starred recipe with your neighbour, while they don’t know how to cook.
You may trust them. They may help you back someday. But it’s just giving them something which is so dear to you (and more importantly, gets you a good load of money).
Today India has a high tech vaccine manufacturing industry, unmatched in the world. It has the world’s largest vaccine-making capacity. It has donated or exported more than 66 million doses before its own needs increased. In 2020, it was termed as the ‘vaccine basket’ of the world when it had doubled up its production to export to over 70 countries.
Today it is struggling to meet its own demands. Just for the sheer reason that all the facilities are not enough. You still need the recipe and the raw ingredients, for alone the stove wouldn’t do.
Let me share the scale of impact, the temporary clearance of these IP rights can create.
Today, only 2 companies are manufacturing vaccines in India, and only 13 in the world. In India alone, we have over 3,000 pharma companies, out of which even if say 200 are vaccine manufacture ready, and they are given licenses to create vaccines, the rate of spread can come drastically down in the world.
This would be an unprecedented impact on the world. Second to probably, stopping WW2.
This would also mean tackling the biggest change in the pharma world as they know it.
There are very few counter-arguments to this, given the current circumstances, but none of which outweighs the benefits with a huge margin.
The companies argue that IP rights bring in more cash to further the research of other, better vaccines. This would have been fine if we had enough time. When people are dying by minutes, and the only solution seems to be vaccines, the funding of companies seems like a trivial concern with all the government support pouring in.
Precedent setting. This just blows the lid off to sheer capitalism and nationalism which the companies don’t even care to hide. They fear that any such IP relaxation might lead to more requests for patent sharing in the future and that it will become a recurring feature.
It is difficult to understand how one unusual, once-in-a-century exception can set a strong precedent for future cases. And even if it did, even if we yet again faced such a situation, I see no reason why this should not be appealed and requested to come in force again.
In the end, it is about the realisation and the government effort.
The realisation that it is not just microeconomics that drives civilisations — it is the people who might perish in economies that are non-rich. The realisation that delaying this might mean that the global pandemic will remain global for years to come, and the finances of the organised world will take a hit.
Today’s IP waive-off is a chance when the global leaders can come together in this fight and not restrict themselves to nationalistic economics.
The Biden government's support in this already goes a long way for a global consensus, but it still remains for other major economies like Germany, Japan to get on board with this and ensure we give our best fight against the virus.
As for precedent setting, there can be no greater precedent set from this act than how capitalism and nationalism bent down in front of global brotherhood and cooperative effort.
This is not a war we are fighting against each other. This is a war we are fighting with an unknown force, for ourselves and ourselves alone.
Praying for the best.