As more Americans roll up their sleeves for a potentially life-saving vaccination, we are called by moral imperative and social justice concern to reflect on the reality that countries without the Western world’s economic capital are being left behind.
A New York Times story tells the grim tale: Residents of wealthy and middle-income countries have received about 90% of the nearly 400 million vaccines that have been delivered. Poor countries could wait for years to see their citizens vaccinated.
There is a choice to be made, and the U.S. has outsize power in the deliberation. A patent is pending on a 5-year-old invention that is at the center of several COVID-19 vaccines, and the government will control the patent. It could be used to pressure drug companies into producing the vaccines and expanding access to countries in need.
America must respond to this crisis.
The unparalleled success in developing the vaccines that now are being distributed came partly at the incentive of massive public funding from the U.S., Britain and the European Union in the form of public-private partnership with drug companies.
This success, hailed as a monumental triumph of science and medicine, will not deserve our national pride if we do not share the success with those who are less fortunate.
Patent-sharing is a start. Companies should be compelled to publish their vaccine formulas then follow up with guidance as to production.
The World Health Organization is pleading for help. It created a technology pool in 2020 to help companies share their expertise across borders. The system is in place. Not one vaccine company has chosen to participate.
Manufacturers in India and Canada have said they could produce the vaccine if they could achieve a patent licensing agreement. This is where the U.S. could help. Usually, drug companies control nearly all of the intellectual property associated with the production of drugs. But, the pending patent deals with the manipulation of a certain coronavirus protein, a manipulation that was discovered in 2016 at a lab at the National Institutes of Health. It was shared with Moderna, and government-run trials commenced. The Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines also rely on the 2016 discovery.
President Joe Biden has promised to help an Indian company produce about 1 billion doses by the end of 2022, and his administration has donated doses to Mexico and Canada. The promise is paired with another: that Americans will be cared for first.
Being at the front of the line is a comforting place to be. But we are called to turn in our comfortable spots and look at who waits behind.
If we are not to be moved by compassion and conscience, then perhaps we should reflect on competition and America’s standing as a world leader: Russia and China have stepped up to say they will fill the vaccine void.
Americans should reach out to their federal leaders and ask that vaccines be treated as “global public goods.” The U.S. should usher to approval a proposal at the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines and treatment. Medical innovation is a human accomplishment that must be shared, for the good of humanity. All of humanity.