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Sharing Covid-19 vaccines: a duty of Western countries?

Since the pandemic’s start, it has always been clear which countries would have had a head start in their vaccination campaign and consequently a return to normality. The vaccine rollout has once again highlighted the disparities between the rich Western countries and the poverty-stricken ones. What will Western governments and pharmaceutical companies do about it, and in which measure do they have to donate vaccines and share their formulas?

The latest news comes from the United States, particularly from the well-known pharmaceutical company Moderna. Governments are putting Moderna under pressure to share its formula to allow poorer countries to produce the vaccine themselves. By having an internal production of vaccines, these countries would have available shots more quickly and cheaply than if they had to import them from another country.

Sharing a vaccine’s formula raises the issue of trademark, but in an emergency such as the Covid-19, we could overlook it for the sake of helping each other. Besides, these pharmaceutical companies have developed a vaccine formula so fast because of the availability of taxpayer money. Therefore, it is evident that wealthy Western countries would be the ones coming up with and producing the vaccines. This said, one thing worth mentioning is the fact that Russia and China also came up with their own vaccines, which they managed to distribute to the population. Despite not being capitalist countries, Russia and China are two big economic powers which did actually have the means to invest in the creation and subsequent production and distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine, a possibility that impoverished countries simply do not have. In the United States, the Biden administration has supported sharing the vaccine formulas by two of the most important pharmaceutical companies, namely Pfizer and Moderna.

The Covax initiative is a step in the right direction, as it is an organised effort sustained by the United Nations to spread the vaccine to every corner of the world. Covax is a solution to overcome the issue of wealthier countries sharing their vaccine doses with underprivileged ones. Covax is an international programme and its aim is to provide all countries and populations in the world with equal access to the Covid-19 vaccine, regardless of the state of the economy of said country.

One recent success that the Covax programme has reached was to dispatch the latest batch of Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines from the UK to poorer countries. As the British government website reports, they have sent out a total of more than 9 million doses of vaccines from the UK to help those countries that do not have enough shots.

The rush for producing and distributing a vaccine to end this global pandemic has highlighted the differences and the enormous disparity between Western industrialised countries and the economic powers of Russia and China and the rest of the world. We could argue that it is a proper duty of rich countries to share the formulas and donate shots to those who cannot afford to organise an effective campaign of vaccination rollout. We also cannot ignore the issue of trademark, which ultimately boil down to an economic monopoly of the vaccine by private pharmaceutical companies. Whichever way they obtained the money to develop the vaccine, it is their intellectual property. We can not ignore the fact that by sharing their formulas of the Covid-19 vaccine, these companies might be making themselves vulnerable in future endeavours. If the pharmaceutical companies that were able to create the vaccine lose its intellectual property, this will raise an ethical issue of trademark in the future should there be the need to create another vaccine. The truth is, no matter how important and fair it is that every part of the world has equal access to the vaccine, this will never be possible because pharmaceutical companies feel the need to protect themselves and their trademark.

There are different points of view that can be taken in this instance, and it is worth considering all of them. First of all, it is quite obvious that sharing the vaccines with poor countries and in general facilitating them to get access to the same standard of health of the Western world is considered by many (for instance by NGOs) a duty.

At the same time though, there are (and there have been) many emergencies going on in the world that do not necessarily have to do with Covid-19. Some health-related emergencies are the AIDS or the Ebola virus. In those cases, as well, the viruses hit poor countries the hardest, as they did not have the means to fight the viruses. Should we then consider it impossible and utopic (or at the very least not very realistic) to reach equality when it comes to health-related emergencies? The key word here is probably “realism”: since those countries are struggling under every aspect and have humanitarian emergencies that do not necessarily have anything to do with Covid-19, it is naïve to think that we would be able to help them have a good chance at battling the Covid pandemic.

Obviously industrialised countries are going to behave in their own best interest by buying up the vaccine doses. The same goes for the pharmaceutical companies which successfully produced a vaccine that is now being distributed; money will always be the common denominator behind issues of copyright of the formula and behind simply donating doses of the Covid shot.

One other thing to take into consideration is the fact that since wealthy countries are, as the word itself specifies, wealthy, they have been able to buy more vaccine doses compared to poorer countries. This fact may seem obvious, but an analysis by the Financial Times has uncovered those wealthier countries have received sixteen times more doses compared to struggling nations that are currently relying on the Covax programme, exacerbating already existing inequalities. What the vaccine disparity further highlights is the effective failure of the Covax programme in ending the pandemic in those poor countries, which many were probably expecting, due to previous failure in helping those countries with other issues related to poverty.

Covax itself has had a hard time simply delivering the doses of the vaccines to those countries because it had no outside help from actual governments, which were probably too worried about distributing the vaccines to their own people. The issue here isn’t whether or not it is a duty of Western countries to donate vaccine doses and to share their formulas, but it is about how de facto they have not done it. At the end of the day, the only solution that has been put in place in order to help poor countries face the Covid-19 pandemic has been the Covax programme, which has failed due to the fact that it had no external help from official governments.

Pfizer has decided to donate 500 million doses to impoverished countries instead of sharing its formula. We could see Pfizer’s decision as yet another way to gatekeep wealth-creating resources from countries whose economy is underdeveloped. These countries could greatly benefit in many ways from having their local vaccine production.

My own general conclusion about the topic of vaccine rollout in poor countries is that we, as citizens of Western countries, have a duty to help those in need, not only when it comes to the Covid-19 vaccine. The point I want to make is that, for a variety of reasons, we have not been able to help those poor countries with other issues, such as hunger or people living below the poverty line. To have a programme like Covax, whose goal is to distribute vaccine doses to countries who can not afford to buy them is an essential part of the fight against the Coronavirus.On the other hand, it is obvious how it is naïve to believe that it could be an actually effective solution. When it comes instead to pharmaceutical companies sharing their vaccine formulas, both arguments are valid. I personally believe that struggling countries having an internal local production of the vaccine is a much more effective solution than just donating doses, because in this way they would be able to have control over the supply and the rollout of the vaccines. On the other hand though, the issue of copyright also has to be considered, if nothing else then because of the implications this could have on these companies’ future endeavours, mainly from an economic standpoint.



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