Trade, Health, and Access to the COVID Vaccines

By: Mary Anne Mercer, IH Section representative in the Trade and Health Forum

The International Health Section is part of the Trade and Health Forum, an intersectional group that aims to inform and activate members on how various aspects of trade affects health, both at home and in the rest of the world. That topic is a bit of a mystery to most of us. But as globalization becomes ever more evident, the relevance of its effects on health is more obvious.

Take the COVID-19 pandemic, for example.  If there is one key lesson to be learned from this past year, it’s that we will only be able to crush the pandemic here when it can be done everywhere. And an important strategy to making that happen is to step up access to the new vaccines as quickly and as widely as possible.  “Herd immunity” can only be reached safely by massive levels of immunizations.

 Right now the 84% of the world’s population that lives in low and middle-income countries is at a huge disadvantage because of rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) constraining the development of generic drugs and vaccines. Those of us who were involved in the early response to AIDS in Africa see eerie parallels with that time. The first drugs to treat AIDS were too costly for low-income countries to adopt. I worked with a health program in Mozambique in the late 1990’s, and it was only after an Indian pharmaceutical company, CIPLA, began producing generic versions of the triple-drug therapy in 2001 that we were able to support drug treatment for people living with HIV and AIDS.  As a result of that delay of more than a dozen years—during which HIV spread unchecked in countries unable to afford drug treatment—some 15 million Africans died of AIDS. 

Right now global access to the vaccine is an important issue that is central to concerns of the Trade and Health group. The WTO patent regulations in question are documented as Trade-Related Intellectual Property right section (TRIPS). The WTO can temporarily waive the patents on COVID vaccines to allow generics to be developed—which would allow a massive scale-up of the immunization effort. The proposal to issue an emergency TRIPS waiver for the period of the pandemic has wide support in low and middle income countries but, so far, is opposed by the currently US administration as well as several other of the rich countries. 

The essence of the patent waiver controversy is, of course, the bottom line. Pharmaceutical profits tend to be substantial; it’s estimated that the profit margin for the Pfizer vaccine, for example, will be four billion dollars by the time the pandemic ends.  The US could be a leader in supporting the proposed TRIPS waiver, but so far has not indicated it’s willing to take that stand.

For more information about this issue, please check out my recent Medium article or any number of concerned groups such as Global Trade Watch and HealthGap.  And take action!

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