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Illustration by Dhabia Al Mansoori

Are Rich Countries Going To Monopolize the Covid-19 Vaccine?

If wealthy countries do not waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines and drugs, they will bear sole responsibility for millions of deaths across the Global South.

Nov 28, 2020

Sometime in December, representatives from countries across the world will gather at the World Trade Organization in Geneva to make one of the most significant short-term decisions in recent human history.
At stake is a proposal by India and South Africa to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 drugs and vaccines at the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement Council. It is an eminently sensible proposal, one that potentially enables the manufacturing of a Covid-19 vaccine across the developing world as soon as a feasible option is available. The same WTO provision helped save thousands of lives at the height of the HIV crisis, after it was applied in 2001. It would ensure that the Global South is not left at the mercy of pharmaceutical corporations like Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.
Even with the proposal, the global distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine would not be completely equitable, as it would still be subject to the intra-country dynamics of class and privilege. But the passage of the proposal would at least ensure that one’s ability to receive a vaccine is not entirely dependent on the color of their passport. As it should be.
But for some, the possibility of countries in the Global South receiving access to a vaccine at the same time as the West is too scary to imagine. The Indian and South African proposal will almost certainly fail at the WTO, due to opposition from wealthier countries, including, most notably, the United States and the member states of the European Union.
The supposed justification for the blockade of the move is the protection of intellectual property rights. It was an argument most prominently put forward by the Wall Street Journal in an editorial so poorly argued that it is hard to read it without being convinced of the absolute opposite position. The editorial suggested that “vaccines and therapies aren’t a free global good,” without even a hint of recognition that that might be a part of the problem. But more importantly, it decided to intentionally ignore the disastrous status quo.
Without a waiver of intellectual property rights, the complexity of vaccine distribution is such that the pandemic will likely continue for years in developing countries. Already, Oxfam estimates that wealthy nations comprising just 13 percent of the global population have cornered about 51 percent of the promised doses of leading Covid-19 vaccine candidates. And more alarmingly, countries comprising about 61 percent of the world’s population will not have access to the five most promising vaccine candidates until 2022.
Even if countries manage to secure a deal with Big Pharma, it is unclear if such a deal will be affordable. For example, in the case of the Covid-19 therapeutic Remdesivir, the pharmaceutical company Gilead has charged 2,340 USD for a five-day treatment course in most countries. Similarly, the vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca — which has been virtue-signaling about its affordable prices — has signed contracts that enable it to charge for-profit prices in Brazil.
Without a waiver, the fortunes of countries will likely diverge more than they have in decades. The West will likely be able to teleport itself to the new non-pandemic world of 2021 and 2022, whereas the horrors of 2020 would continue to repeat themselves across the Global South. In developing countries, lockdowns will continue, students will lose valuable school years and businesses will remain shut, some never to open again. Grandparents will go another year without seeing their grandchildren — if they make it. An invisible vaccine curtain will rise across the world, separating countries with access to a vaccine from those without.
The cruelest irony is that the countries opposing the move have never had particular qualms about testing their newest inventions in the Global South. The United States has been a global leader in this regard, generously testing its newest drones, airplanes and bombs across the Global South, from Baghdad to Kabul. The United Kingdom was similarly magnanimous when it decided to share the fruits of its nuclear weapons with the Marshall Islands. One can only wonder why countries like the U.S. and the U.K. have not chosen to extend this generosity to Covid-19 vaccines.
The decision to block the waiver is another sign that the West’s regard for the Global South’s development ends where the pockets of their lobbyists start. Not that this will end their sanctimony. After blocking a move that could save thousands of lives, they will probably respond by providing pitiful amounts of patronizing foreign aid.
But I doth protest too much. After all, the least that Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron can do is to pay for the funerals caused by their greed.
Abhyudaya Tyagi is Managing Editor. Email him at
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