IN this most horrible year, there is finally some encouraging news. AstraZeneca, BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna, the leading pharmaceutical companies, have revealed stellar results for their vaccine trials, indicating the availability of a Covid-19 vaccine as early as January of next year. Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced that his government is setting aside $ 100 million to purchase the Covid-19 vaccine. But the story does not end there because the road to obtaining the vaccine is strewn with pitfalls.
Covid-19 is an unprecedented economic and public health crisis for the developing world. In South Asia alone, World Bank estimates show that this pandemic will push an estimated 50 million people into poverty. In a sense, developing countries need the Covid-19 vaccine more than rich countries.
The purchase of the Covid-19 vaccine, however, will test the leaders of the developing world in more than one way. For starters, getting the vaccine isn’t just about funding; the vaccine is simply not available. A small group of wealthy countries, the United States in particular, have almost cornered the Covid-19 vaccine market by placing orders in advance. Oxfam estimates that the majority of developing countries will not have access to the Covid-19 vaccine until the end of 2022. Faced with the specter of repeated waves of Covid-19, the developing world must unite to seek a universal vaccine available , free and distributed as needed.
Equitable access to the Covid-19 vaccine was identified as a serious issue from the start. The WHO’s Global Covid-19 Vaccine Access Center (COVAX) was set up to ensure that developing countries can obtain a fair share of the vaccine by distributing it on a global population basis. Unfortunately, the United States did not join. With a population of 328 million, the United States has already ordered 100 million doses and plans to acquire 500 million more. Even rich countries that have joined COVAX are free to enter into bilateral agreements with vaccine producers.
Life-saving vaccines have not always been hidden behind patents.
Some economists argue that a free vaccine cannot be provided because it violates intellectual property rights. It is said that IPRs like patents and trademarks provide the right set of incentives for research and development of new technologies. A strong IPR regime is also seen as a necessary basis for efficient markets. Economists, however, have also long recognized public goods, which are a special class of goods that benefit everyone. Generally, people cannot be excluded from the enjoyment of a public good such as clean air or a public park. For this reason, public goods are provided by the state as markets are often under-supplied with public goods.
Social and political decisions influence which vaccines become public goods. Life-saving vaccines have not always been hidden behind patents. Jonas Salks’ polio vaccine has never been patented. In addition, 110 countries around the world produce the influenza vaccine which is funded almost entirely by governments.
In the case of the Covid-19 vaccine, it is urgent to identify policies to ensure equitable access to developing countries. One way to do this is to pressure developing countries led by Pakistan to convert the Covid-19 vaccine into a global public good, forcing rich countries to share the vaccine formula with pharmaceutical companies in the developing world. where the vaccine should be offered free of charge to those who cannot buy it. This political intervention will also pave the way for the release of a majority of the world’s population from deadly and unfair patents on life-saving medicines.
In the meantime, Pakistani policymakers must take stock of their vaccine distribution systems. Given the social resistance to the polio vaccination program, policymakers must start working to achieve greater acceptance of the Covid-19 mass vaccination through electronic, print and social media. Vulnerable groups must be identified within the population so that they can be vaccinated in the initial phase. Policy makers also need to design plans to train vaccinators and invest in purchasing specialized equipment to maintain the cold chain for the Covid-19 vaccine.
The pandemic is ravaging the developing world with no end in sight. In the meantime, rich countries have absorbed the entire supply of the Covid-19 vaccine. Large pharmaceutical companies should not hide behind patents because the Covid-19 vaccine is truly a global public good. Now is the time for the developing world to come together and push for a popular vaccine so that lives are no longer needlessly lost.
The writer completed his doctorate with a Fulbright scholarship. He teaches economics and public policy at Habib University in Karachi.
Posted in Dawn, November 22, 2020
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