By Pasqualina Curcio – Jun 28, 2021
A debate has been going on worldwide about the exemption of COVID-19 vaccine patents. The director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom, warned governments and pharmaceutical companies that “unless we eliminate the virus everywhere, we could end up back at square one.” This statement is mainly due to the fact that the longer we take to vaccinate the world’s population, the more likely the coronavirus will mutate and evade vaccines, making them less effective in containing the disease. A clear example has been Brazil, where several experts warn that it could become a “factory” of variants capable of escaping the effectiveness of vaccines, which, as Adhanom warned, could lead us back to the starting point of the pandemic.
The issue of potential COVID-19 variants is not just a small detail towards understanding why the pharmaceutical industry has flatly refused the request made by governments and the United Nations to lift the patents and, therefore, has not wanted to transfer its licenses, knowledge and technology so that other companies can join in the mass production of vaccines and thus immunize the world’s population in the shortest possible time.
It is estimated that between 10 and 14 billion doses are required by 2021 to guarantee the immunization of 80% of the 7.7 billion people living on the planet, a production capacity that the pharmaceutical companies that have developed the vaccines do not have. In addition, and as if this were not enough, more than two thirds of this total has already been demanded and committed to rich countries, according to reports by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.
There are two main obstacles to rapid and effective immunization. First, low production levels due to the low capacity of the companies that have developed the vaccine. Secondly, the unequal distribution of the vaccines produced, which are being shamelessly monopolized by rich countries that have enough vaccines to immunize three or four times their population.
To date, according to the WHO, three quarters of the vaccinated people live in 10 rich countries that account for 60% of the world’s GDP, while 130 countries, home to 2.5 billion people, have barely been able to start vaccinating. Médecins Sans Frontières reports that if the first two billion doses of vaccines were distributed in proportion to the population of each country, global mortality could be reduced by 61%. On the other hand, if the 47 richest countries monopolize the doses, the reduction will be only 33%.
The question that arises is: what are the real reasons for the pharmaceutical industry to refuse to cede its licenses and transfer technology and knowledge, despite the fact that this is a highly contagious and lethal disease that has not only surpassed the healthcare capacity of even high-income countries, but has also claimed the lives of almost four million people, and has had a tremendous impact on the economy and world poverty. What explains the behavior of this industry, knowing that the pandemic will not be controlled until we are all protected? We have two answers to this question.
The first is to avoid a precedent in the relaxation of the mechanism of intellectual property rights that would put at risk the substantial profits, not only associated not only with COVID-19, but also with its healthcare business.
Above the financial sector and after the oil and defense industries, pharmaceuticals is the third-largest profit maker worldwide. Before the pandemic, in 2019, its revenues were estimated at $700 billion USD a year. Patents are nothing more than the legalization of monopolies that grant, for at least 20 years, exclusivity in the production and marketing of medicines, generating a negative effect on access to these goods that are very necessary for the health and life of the people.
Patents grant great power, not only economic but also political, to the pharmaceutical industry. Imagine the power that the owners of the private companies that have developed COVID-19 vaccine candidates currently have. They have the power to decide on the health and lives of literally the entire world. To allow patent flexibilities is to surrender that power.
Secondly, with an estimated average price of $15 USD per vaccine dose multiplied by the 14 billion required this year, the patent relaxation would imply for these few companies, not only to share revenues in the order of $200 billion (an additional 28% on the $700 billion that they regularly, without a pandemic, earn each year) but also to share future revenues related to boosters and new vaccines, depending on the variants.
The pharmaceutical industry has estimated that the virus will not be eradicated with this year’s vaccination, but that third doses and new vaccines will be required due to the appearance of variants. The application of a third dose implies an average of $100 billion of additional revenue for the industry. Relaxing patents and handing over their know-how and technology will put them in the vaccine business for years to come. Eliminating patents puts at stake billions of dollars that the pharmaceutical industry would stop earning. In fact, according to Forbes magazine: “Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have told investors that they will raise vaccine prices as soon as the pandemic phase is over. Vaccine makers are well aware of the real possibility that people will need annual booster shots and see this as an opportunity to increase revenues.”
We should remember that, incidentally, these companies did not even invest in the research and development of the vaccines. The financing was mainly from the governments with resources coming from our taxes, as it is also the governments that buy and pay for them. It is the case that, in an identical manner, patents work for other drugs, whether they are used to prevent, cure or treat other diseases. COVID-19 is just one more example of the perverse effects of the commercialization of health and patents, which are part of an exploitative and unjust system such as capitalism.
It is not enough for the peoples of the world, governments and international organizations to timidly request the temporary relaxation of patents on the vaccine against COVID-19. The campaign that we must undertake is for the elimination of all patents. The right to property, in this case intellectual property, cannot be above the right to health and life. That is not humane.
Featured image: File Photo
Economist (Central University of Venezuela). PhD in Political Science from Simón Bolívar University (Venezuela). Master in Public Policies of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Administration (Venezuela). She is a Full Professor of the Department of Economic and Administrative Sciences of the Simón Bolívar University. She was Deputy Minister of Collective Health Networks.
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