As the rate of vaccine distribution in the United States continues to improve, a growing group of public health experts, advocacy organizations, and policymakers are calling for wealthy countries to work towards improving vaccine distribution to low-income nations. Rich and middle-income countries have received approximately 90% of the almost 400 million vaccines that have been delivered so far—and current projections don’t show that disparity ending any time soon, with much of Africa and sections of South America and Asia not projected to have widely vaccinated their population until 2023.
Not only does this massive disparity leave billions of people across the world at the mercy of the coronavirus for an indefinite amount of time, likely leading to millions more getting sick and dying, it also promises to weaken the effectiveness of any coronavirus immunity developed in wealthier countries. What does it matter if the U.S. has achieved herd immunity if, once people start widely traveling internationally again they are exposed to potentially vaccine-resistant covid-19 variants in other countries?
When partnering with drug companies to develop coronavirus vaccines, Western nations ignored calls from the World Health Organization to include language in their contracts that would have designated a certain number of doses for poorer countries, or at the very least encouraged pharmaceutical companies to share their knowledge widely. It’s clear by now that the companies aren’t going to share their knowledge willingly. Last year, the WHO created a technology-sharing pool for pharmaceutical companies developing covid-19 vaccines to share information with manufacturers in lower-income countries—but not one vaccine company has agreed to participate. Despite claims from drug company executives that they are struggling to find partners with the right technology for them to license their vaccines, manufacturers in countries ranging from Canada to Bangladesh say they are ready and able to produce vaccines—if only they could get patent licensing deals.
“Unfortunately, only limited, exclusive, and often non-transparent voluntary licensing is the preferred approach of some companies, and this is proven to be insufficient to address the needs of the current COVID-19 pandemic,” the WHO told the Washington Post. “The entire population and the global economy are in crisis because of that approach and vaccines nationalism.”
However, a patent on a method of molecular engineering that was essential to the development of many of the current covid-19 vaccines (and can be used to develop vaccines for other coronaviruses) is set to be issued in just a few days. As this patent will be controlled by the U.S. government, many hope that it will use this new leverage over pharmaceutical companies to put pressure on them to share their technologies and production methods with manufacturers in poorer countries. But that still seems like a long shot, as even now the U.S. and European Union are blocking a World Trade Organization proposal that would waive intellectual property rights for covid-19 vaccines and other treatments—partially due to concerns about “undermining innovation.”
Currently, the pharmaceutical industry hopes to produce between 10 and 14 billion vaccines during 2021, and more than two-thirds of those doses have already been claimed by high and middle-income countries. The remaining doses would optimistically cover only 28% of the populations of 92 of the poorest nations in the world. If the U.S. and other wealthier countries don’t start prioritizing getting vaccines to low-income countries, it’s likely that this pandemic will continue to kill people across the world for years to come.