Vaccines for All

We need a more equitable global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
Administering the COVID-19 vaccine in Bengaluru, India, May 13, 2021 (CNS photo/Samuel Rajkumar, Reuters)

The Biden administration’s support for waiving intellectual-property protections for Covid vaccines is a necessary, though limited, first step toward the more equitable global distribution of shots. Its announcement came as India was experiencing a spike in new infections, with more than 300,000 cases a day in mid-May. At the time, less than 3 percent of India’s 1.35 billion citizens were fully vaccinated, even as the country churned out vaccines for the rest of the world.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai wrote in a statement. “The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”

Advocates of the much-debated proposal argue that lifting intellectual-property protections is critical to increasing vaccine access in the developing world, potentially expanding the pool of companies that could produce the shots and making them cheaper in the long term. Critics contend that waiving patent protections disincentivizes innovation and investment in the costly research needed to develop new medical treatments, while doing nothing to actually solve the immediate and complex problem of manufacturing more doses. 

The vaccine-distribution process has never been equitable.

What all agree on is that there are still substantial structural barriers to getting vaccines to more people. Removing patent protections is not the same as providing the specialized knowledge needed to work with new mRNA technology, for instance, or funding the construction of new facilities to produce the shots. “Intellectual property rights is part of the problem,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain told CBS News in early May. “But really, manufacturing is the biggest problem.” Even developed countries like the United States aren’t immune to production snarls: just a few months ago, a plant in Baltimore ruined 15 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

But the vaccine-distribution process has never been equitable. Early in the pandemic, wealthy nations made bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies, investing money for research and development while also preemptively purchasing millions of doses. In some cases, the amount of doses bought was two to five times greater than the size of their populations. Unable to make similar expenditures, poorer countries were left scrambling. By late April of this year, according to Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center, high-income countries had purchased more than half of the global vaccine supply; low-income countries were able to secure only 9 percent. Some experts believe that developing countries may not have widespread access to Covid vaccines until 2023 at the earliest

The past year has illustrated with distressing clarity how interconnected the fates of both developed and developing nations are in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, so removing barriers to access is a step in the right direction. But while debating the finer points of intellectual property law is important, it does nothing to advance Biden’s goal for the United States to be an “arsenal of vaccines” for the rest of the world. Much more welcome is the news that his administration will donate an additional 20 million doses abroad, a concrete step that, in addition to sharing technical manufacturing knowledge and strengthening production and distribution channels, could actually help get shots into people’s arms—no matter where they are. 

Published in the June 2021 issue: 

Katie Daniels is the managing editor of Commonweal.

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