Place people over profits: COVID vaccine developers should share their technology

Place people over profits: COVID vaccine developers should share their technology

With three new variants of the novel coronavirus popping up around the world, the race is on to reach herd immunity before the more contagious and potentially more deadly strains take hold. The barrier: the stranglehold on vaccine supply exerted by three, for-profit companies.

According to the World Health organization, just 25 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered across all low-income countries compared with 39 million in wealthier ones. That’s why Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of the South Africa's Peoples' Vaccine Campaign has issued a letter endorsed by over 500 other organizations calling on Anthony Fauci and other U.S. medical experts to require the manufacturers to ensure equitable access by making their patents and technologies freely available.

"While the United States and many countries in the Global North are beginning to attempt to bring their epidemics under control through also the deployment of highly effective mRNA vaccines, our country, like most others in the Global South, currently has little access to COVID-19 vaccines,” the letter says.

John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adds, “The situation in Africa is urgent and is critical. The rate of deaths occurring over the last one month is significantly more than what we observed during the first wave. Unless we have timely access to vaccines, I’m afraid the situation will be extremely difficult to manage going forward.”

According to a recent report by ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies, that’s because, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, which expects its single-dose vaccine to be ready for distribution in April, have limited production capacity and have pre-sold most of their stocks—current and future—to wealthy governments. Yet at the same time, the companies have relied heavily on government-funded research—raising questions about the validity of their intellectual property rights.

Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson are trying to prevent shareholders from voting on resolutions to require the companies to disclose information about the impact of government funding on vaccine access.

In November, the watchdog group Public Citizen issued a report documenting that the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were developed using a spike protein technology discovered by scientists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. “Years of public investment fueled the rapid advancement of COVID-19 vaccine candidates,” the group wrote.

BioNTech, the company Pfizer worked with to develop its COVID-19 vaccine, also received funding from the German government.

Yet, two of those companies—Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson—are trying to prevent shareholders from voting on resolutions to require the companies to disclose information about the impact of government funding on vaccine access. The shareholder resolutions, filed by members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility ask the two companies to inform their shareholders how “receipt of public financial support for development and manufacture of products for COVID-19 is being, or will be, taken into account when making decisions that affect access to such products, such as setting prices.” Both Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson filed “no action requests” with the Securities and Exchange Commission, asking the agency to rule that the companies can withhold the proposals from shareholders. 

Moderna has performed more admirably, announcing in October that it would not enforce its patent rights during the pandemic. However, it said it would grant any licenses for its technology, and thus actively sharing its knowledge and technology, until the pandemic is over.

"The U.S. government helped research and pay for the development of the NIH-Moderna vaccine,” noted the South African letter. “Yet, as things stand, the Moderna’s unilateral decision means very few nations will benefit from it. Moderna's own limited production ability and capacity to serve the world poses a global risk.”

The Chilean government issued a similar call as early as last March, when the pandemic was first spreading. Its parliament unanimously adopted a resolution declaring that the deadly scope of the global coronavirus justified the use of compulsory licensing to ensure access to any vaccines, drugs and other technologies that emerged.

Last month, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch came out in favor of a temporary waiver of global intellectual property rules to boost global access to the COVID-19 vaccines, which was proposed by India and South Africa and deliberated at a World Trade Organization meeting in Geneva. The governments of Kenya, Eswatini, Mozambique and Pakistan co-sponsored the waiver proposal, with the support of other 100 countries, most of them low- or middle-income. But governments from a small group of high-income countries and their trading partners opposed it, including Brazil, the European Union, Canada, the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

The international community, led by the United States, is at a critical juncture: What is more important: corporate profits or human lives? 

“In 1996, when drugs to treat HIV first became available, it took 10 years before those drugs were finally accessible on the African continent. Between 1996 and 2006, 12 million Africans died — and, I underline, unnecessarily,” notes Nkengasong. “We should really make sure that the history, that sad page of our history, does not occur again, especially with this pandemic. We are very, very worried that we may be heading towards that direction if something is not done and done urgently.”

Elias Mossialos, a health policy professor at the London School of Economics and Greece’s representative to the international coordinating body dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, has proposed a middle ground to ensure that private investment into research and development is not discouraged: Countries could collaborate to buy patent rights to the Covid-19 technologies while also treating them as global public goods that can be distributed rapidly and equitably to those in need.

As Sidney Wong, executive co-director of the Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders Access Campaign, says, “What we really need to see is a rapid expansion of the overall global supply, so there are more vaccines to go around and doses can be allocated according to WHO's public health criteria, not a country's ability to pay."

To date, more than 2 million people have died from COVID-19 and its variants worldwide. The international community, led by the United States, is at a critical juncture: What is more important: corporate profits or human lives? Corporations won’t limit their earnings willingly; governments where they are located or that are influential customers must demand it.

 

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