Emerging Voices

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The COVID-19 Vaccine Monopoly

The release of the COVID-19 vaccine has brought hope for a return to normalcy— a stark contrast from the fearful and despondent mood that consumed most of 2020. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States is currently administering over 1.8 million COVID vaccinations a day. The situation is drastically different in developing nations, where the grapple for vaccines has been a real and challenging task, simply because they do not have access to these resources. It seems to have been forgotten that the purpose of the vaccine is in fact to immunize a population— not profit off of it.

The reality is that there are solutions being implemented in attempts to solve the disparities of vaccine access— solutions that are being shut down and ignored by profit-minded businesses that are capable of doing so because of their privilege of being headquartered in wealthy countries. Seeing the problem in this, several developing countries including India and South Africa have created a proposal that requests the World Trade Organization to waive the normal protections on intellectual property. This will benefit developing nations with limited access, as it establishes opportunities to create more affordable versions of the COVID vaccine. Unsurprisingly, the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom have rejected the proposal. The reasoning for this is that profits are needed for the innovation of other medicines. As Mustaqeem De Gama, Counsellor at the South African Mission in Geneva, has asked, “Is this a time to profit?”

It is appalling that in a time where poverty, civil war, and political instability are starkly prominent problems plaguing developing nations, immunizing their populations against this deadly virus is a struggle too. And what’s even sadder: there is no system put in place to regulate and conduct the fair distribution of the vaccine. Thus, it is no surprise that the West has locked orders for most of the supply of COVID vaccines. A number so high that it can vaccinate two to three times their populations, according to the New York Times.

Yet many developing countries could end up waiting until 2024 to vaccinate their populations. Now is not the time to protect intellectual property and gloat about who is doing better in vaccine advancements. When a country not only limits the ability for other nations to vaccinate their populations but also blocks systems being put in place to help those nations who are significantly impacted, egocentricity is evident. People are dying. Yes, money is instrumental for other medical advances, but by no means does that come before the lives of the millions who do not live in nations of wealth and pharmaceutical power.

COVAX is one of the three pillars of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator and is significant in allowing poor countries to get access to COVID-19 vaccines at affordable prices. But then, when looking at who controls the production of these vaccines, it is evident once again that in truth, all countries— wealthy and poor— are not offered equal access. The fundamental problem lies in the fact that access is determined by the ability to pay, not by genuine necessity. In essence, COVAX has a monopoly over the vaccine, as they decide who gets the vaccine and who does not. Poor nations who have massive debts that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank failed to provide relief to are left with no escape from this global crisis. There must be an effective system that is able to enforce distribution to nations that are in immediate need, enough supply to vaccinate a sufficient amount of the population, and a system that provides vaccines as they are needed; nothing more.

And if only self-interest will cause wealthy nations to realize the impact of their actions, then looking at the long-term impact can perhaps be eye-opening. A study from the RAND Corporation has shown that the pandemic’s economic effects on poor nations can limit global economic fortunes and trade as well, and will lead to a surrender of $153 billion a year in production. It is well-known that the United States, China, Germany, and the United Kingdom have big roles on the international trade stage, but smaller countries like the Republic of Congo and Belgium are big players too. Belgium is also one of the most affected nations by the pandemic yet has gotten only half of the amount of vaccines it had ordered and expected. Ultimately, COVID-19 being a threat to Belgium is a threat to all nations economically. Its significant role in international trade will be felt globally, if its economy is not able to sustain the effects of the pandemic, and lack of access to vaccination. Newton states, “Every action has an opposite and equal reaction.” This may be a law of physics, but it applies here too.

This is not a time to consider money. It is hard to think of others at a time when our own country is struggling immensely. I’m not suggesting that anyone forget about our own nation. However, it is inhumane for anyone to have to relive this year, or this pandemic, for three more years. People in financially prosperous nations may not have to, but other nations will.