From a humanitarian perspective, this should be an easy decision

“What the Post fails to mention—indeed, what most American reporting on this subject has neglected to make clear—is that other countries are simply asking for the right to manufacture vaccine doses of their own, as opposed to drawing from existing supply in the U.S. for their own larders. …

“Since last year, 57 countries, along with organizations like Oxfam and Amnesty International, have been begging the WTO to temporarily waive patent protection for the vaccines, so that countries such as India and South Africa might be able to produce their own Covid-19 vaccines and other treatments, which could be more affordable and available to the developing world. And since last year, rich countries, led by the U.S. the U.K., and the European Union, have been blocking that demand. The latest attempt to get them to reconsider failed just last week. …

“Vaccine distribution is being spoken and written about as a zero-sum game because of the conditions of artificial scarcity that our government has created and is presently enforcing. If more Americans actually knew the substance of the requests being made by other nations, they’d have no reason to worry about losing any of “our” vaccine doses. Instead, they would understand that the only thing at risk—and only temporarily at that—are some potential future profits of Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and the like. It’s hard to believe many of them would side with our government’s position on the matter. The lack of interest by the American media means we’ll never get to find out.”

Nations across the world are demanding the right to manufacture their own Covid-19 vaccines. Why is the U.S. saying no?

2 thoughts on “From a humanitarian perspective, this should be an easy decision

  1. Of course, these things are never an easy decision, because the decision one makes now affects the choices people will make for years in the future, and that affects later humanitarian outcomes.

    Certainly, the point is well-taken that since the US has secured far more doses than it needs, much of the excess ought to be distributed to other countries. Politically, the “secured doses” that get distributed must be ones that have been promised by the manufacturers but don’t yet exist physically, and have to be scheduled to be made after all of the secured doses we retain.

    The article says “Those doses are currently scarce because only a few companies have the capacity–and the right–to manufacture vaccines.” I don’t think that’s true; as far as I know of, every manufacturer capable of producing vaccines is under contract to make Covid vaccines at the maximum rate they can. Certainly, the market situation would drive any company that has developed a vaccine to contract for as much manufacturing capacity as it can as quickly as it can, because if they don’t contract for a manufacturing facility, one of the other 9 or so vaccine developers in full production will do so, and you make money in proportion to the doses you can deliver.

    And some of those manufacturers are in non-developed countries. For example, the Serum Institute of India is making 2 million doses a day, and apparently is the world’s largest manufacturer.

    Reading into it, I see the sentence “countries such as India and South Africa might be able to produce their own Covid-19 vaccines and other treatments”, that is, this isn’t just about them making Covid vaccines but also “other treatments”. One of the linked WaPo articles says “In the immediate term, waiving intellectual property rights alone cannot fix the problem of vaccine inequities and shortages. … experts said it could have far-reaching implications by preventing subsequent scarcities and sending a signal now about the imperative of collective action.” Which sounds to me that the target isn’t Covid vaccines but ongoing future of biomedical development and manufacture.

    Reading makes things clearer. It notes that the requests aren’t from truly poor countries, but from India and South Africa. And “Furthermore, there has been an astonishing number of patents filed for COVID-19 vaccines in development, including more than 100 for the mRNA platform technology being used by Moderna to develop a vaccine.” Which is hardly surprising, as Moderna has spent 10 years’ of investors money bringing the technology to the point that it works in practice. Now manufacturers in India and South Africa would like to use that technology without paying (much) for it.

    It looks like what’s going on is two well-known problems. One is that developing countries that can utilize intellectual property but do not generate much of it want to use it for free. Thus, the United States in its early years didn’t respect British copyrights, and so British works were available for cheap in the US. Only when the US developed a large publishing industry did it enter into international copyright treaties.

    The other one is that IP owners don’t really care if e.g. Mozambique uses the IP for cheap; they’re not going to make any money off Mozambique anyway. What they’re terrified of is that Mozambique will use the IP to make something which will be exported (or smuggled) into developed countries and undercut their ability to make money in countries where there is money to be made. And since many poor countries are corrupt and bootlegging can be very profitable, this fear isn’t ill-founded. I’ve read (though not in a reliable source) that when the manufacturers of anti-AIDS drugs finally agreed to supply them cheaply through a UN program to poor countries, a conspiracy to divert the *very first* shipment to a poor country into bootlegging into Europe was thwarted.

    Of course, all of this could be eliminated in an instant if we took pharmaceutical development away from private industry and the federal government paid for it directly, thus eliminating the need for IP. But I haven’t seen anyone recommend that. We want investors to pay for development but then sell the product for cheap.

  2. If the US federal government paid for pharma development directly, the flows of money wouldn’t be that different than they are now, as essentially all pharma development now is ultimately paid for by customers in the US and about half of that is paid for by various government-run insurance plans. The difference, I think, would be that the drugs that got developed would be biased toward what the federal authorities think are needed, rather than currently they’re biased toward what the patients think are needed (with weighting by how affluent they are).

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