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Young African Magazine

Patents Kill Patients Part 2: The Vaccine is here (or is it?)

Published 8 February 2021

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The corona virus has recently turned one year old and some positive news has finally emerged. Several viable vaccines have been identified and are already being produced and distributed. At the time of writing, three main vaccines are being distributed. These are the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/Biontech and the Moderna vaccines. The tightly-contested race to find a vaccine has turned out to be more about realising profits than saving human lives.

Carrying on from my previous article, patents continue to be complicit in the exclusion of the poor from medication in times of crisis. Investment bank Goldman Sachs has released a report that estimates the earliest possible times that the vaccine will be available throughout the world. It is being forecast that more than 70% of people in developed markets will be vaccinated by roughly September 2021. In contrast, it is estimated that the majority of poor countries will not be immunised against Covid-19 by the year 2024. It is possible that some may not achieve mass immunity at all. This is according to analysis from the Economist Intelligence Unit. How is it possible that a vaccine exists, but it is estimated that developing nations will only achieve mass vaccination two or three years from now when people are dying every day?

The answer is simple: patent laws. Patent protection allows an inventor the exclusive right to exclude other persons from making, using, distributing, exercising, disposing or offering to dispose of, or importing an invention. This is why the vaccine is moving at a snail’s pace and at the expense of lives. It is only the patent holders that can produce and distribute the vaccine. Already, Pfizer has blocked Médecins Sans Frontiers in India from developing an alternative version of its pneumococcal vaccine. Similarly, Pfizer also sued SK Bioscience in South Korea over its pneumococcal conjugate vaccine. Both cases were grounded in the fact that alternative vaccines were being developed and adapted from work done by Pfizer without their permission.

In October and November of 2020, South Africa and India approached the World Trade Organisation’s TRIPS council, with the proposal that patent laws be wavered in so far as they relate to the COVID-19 vaccine. This would make it much easier for more countries to produce the vaccine themselves and avoid having to pay the high prices currently being charged. To put it into context, Moderna (given in two doses) will cost $32-$37 per dose, Pfizer-$19.50, AstraZeneca (two doses)- $3/$4 per dose. South Africa recently received its first batch of 1 million vaccines. Great news? Not quite. South Africa had to pay almost 2.5 times the asking price of the AstraZeneca vaccine and purchased a $3 vaccine for $5.25 per dose. In an interview with Reuters, South Africa’s deputy director general of health Anban Pillay said that the inflated price was because South Africa had not contributed to the vaccine’s research and development. Those EU countries that did contribute are buying the same doses at $2.16 according to a leak from a Belgian minister on Twitter.

So, what have we learnt? Our initial fears arising from the inequities of treatment during the AIDS pandemic, which I explored in part one of this article, seem to have been confirmed. Discussion forums are starting to use the sinister term “vaccine apartheid” to describe this phenomenon. These private agreements between richer governments and coronavirus vaccine manufacturers are worrisome, leaving questions about what will become of the lower income nations.

If South Africa had answered the call to amend patent laws to take advantage of the TRIPS flexibilities that allow for the automatic compulsory licensing of patented inventions, we could have produced the patented vaccine without the consent of the patent owner for domestic consumption. However, these domestic laws were not amended in time and alas, here we are, at the mercy of the patent holders.

Furthermore, the damage is not only in terms of human life. The International Chamber of Commerce has predicted that delays to vaccine access in low-income nations will cost the global economy around $9trillion. A delay in accessing the vaccine will mean that jobs will continue to be lost indefinitely.

We find ourselves in a situation where those who can afford to live will live; those who cannot will die, all because of patent law.

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