As of three days ago, there were 158 million persons across the word infected with the COVID-19 virus that emanated out of Wuhan, China in December 2019, causing 3.28 million deaths. While the USA led the world both in total number infected (32.7 million) and deaths (581,000), in its present second wave, India has suddenly skyrocketed to 22.3 million infected and 242,000 deaths. Still behind Brazil’s 421,000 deaths, but with more contagious and deadly new variants, it is feared that India’s crisis might careen out of control.
While our 14,203 cases and 323 deaths might appear insignificant, compared with our 780,000 population, we have been hit proportionately harder than even India, with its 1.3 billion population.
Those stark numbers remind us that with the globalisation process increasing exponentially over the last 50 years, we are now totally interconnected. Even those countries that have managed to bring their rates down to manageable proportions cannot be complacent. With the COVID-19 virus, like all viruses, mutating constantly, there is the certainty of new outbreaks.
At this point, therefore, our only hope is for the entire world to achieve herd immunity with about 80 per cent of the population vaccinated. We would also have the capability and capacity to produce new vaccines to deal with the new variants. With this prognosis, we will have to concede that we will have to be living with this threat for some years.
In the meantime, we have to address the identified needs: to produce enough vaccines to inoculate the world and to be innovative enough to keep up with the mutating virus. The challenge, therefore, is a technological one, which, however, becomes an economic one since it takes massive funding to both create and produce vaccines. Generally, because of the latter factor, most of the creation of vaccines have been done by the so-called “Big Pharma” companies in the developed countries. And these companies have patented their discoveries which then creates a monopoly condition that is protected by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) through its “Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights” (TRIPS) agreement which all member countries have signed.
The argument being that if the incentive to recoup their investments and to also make a profit is removed, by forcing companies to waive their patents for the “greater good”, there will not be enough new innovations. Which would present a Catch-22 situation since the deadly COVID-19 virus is mutating constantly.
The developed countries, where “Big Pharma” is traditionally located, led by the US, have vociferously defended the “incentive argument” and even new entrants like Russia with their Sputnik V and China with its Sinopharm have fallen into line. Last week, however, US President Joe Biden did a volte-face amid protests from Big Pharma. He announced that his country was willing to push for a temporary waiver of WTO patent protection because of the enormity of the threat to world security – especially the poorer countries.
The news was applauded by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and about 100 other countries that have been pushing for just such a decision within the WTO. The EU also agreed with Biden, but a spoke was thrown into the slowly-turning consensus wheel that governs the WTO’s decision-making process by Germany, which hunkered down on the incentive argument. It also made the argument that the manufacturing capabilities are not available in a wide spectrum of countries and instead what is needed is an increase in productive capacity of the present manufacturers.
The argument superficially carries some weight in the present crisis since India, which is the largest manufacturer of vaccines, has been unable to keep up with their own demand. But this ignores the fact that India also has a number of smaller manufacturers which have been unable to pay the large licensing fees to produce vaccines such as AstraZeneca.
More importantly, a positive decision would encourage other significant countries such as Nigeria to initiate their vaccine manufacturing programmes without having the licensing albatross around their necks.