Defeating COVID Requires Waiving Big Pharma’s Vaccine Patents, WHO Leader Says

Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Friday urged global powers to “pull out all the stops” to defeat the coronavirus pandemic including by waiving Big Pharma’s vaccine patents to ensure equitable access to the drugs.

“Sharing doses, boosting manufacturing by removing barriers, and ensuring that we use data effectively to target left-behind communities is key to ending this crisis,” he wrote in an op-ed published at The Guardian.

He lamented that “the vast majority” of the 225 million administered Covid-19 vaccine doses “have been in a handful of rich and vaccine-producing countries, while most low- and middle-income countries watch and wait.” Such a “me-first” approach, he said, is ultimately “self-defeating.”

That’s because “as long as the virus is spreading anywhere, it has more opportunities to mutate and potentially undermine the efficacy of vaccines everywhere,” wrote Tedros. “We could end up back at square one.”

To prevent such a scenario, the WHO chief laid out a number of possible steps. “Whether it’s dose sharing, tech transfer, or voluntary licensing, as the WHO’s own Covid-19 Technology Access Pool initiative encourages, or waiving intellectual property rights, as South Africa and India have suggested, we need to pull out all the stops,” he stated.

“Flexibilities in trade regulations exist for emergencies, and surely a global pandemic, which has forced many societies to shut down and caused so much harm to business — both large and small — qualifies. We need to be on a war footing, ” he wrote.

While welcoming “significant” moves by pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Sanofi to share vaccine technology — as well as Johnson & Johnson and Merck’s partnership to boost vaccine supplies — Tedros said that further actions are needed to stamp out the crisis, including waiving patents.

Framing the challenge of a global vaccination effort as immense but not insurmountable, Tedros wrote that “if we can put a rover on Mars, we can surely produce billions of vaccines and save lives on earth.”

Tedros further noted that other global threats like the climate crisis require international cooperation, so “the faster we can vaccinate, the faster we will be able to focus on fighting” those issues.

“The future is ours to write,” he wrote.

Tedros’ comments were welcomed by Oxfam International, a member of the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

“Dr. Tedros is right,” the social justice group said. “It’s time to end vaccine monopolies. We need a #PeoplesVaccine.”

Other advocates agree:

The health leader’s new op-ed followed growing demands from social justice and healthcare organizations that the World Trade Organization lift its Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property rules to allow for wider manufacturing of the vaccines.

At a Thursday protest outside the WTO headquarters in Geneva, activists with Doctors Without Borders displayed a banner reading “No Covid Monopolies — Wealthy Countries Stop Blocking TRIPS Waiver.”

In the U.S., President Joe Biden recently faced a call from hundreds of national groups to back the call for an emergency waiver of the trade organization’s intellectual property (IP) rules.

As Common Dreams noted Thursday, “Despite garnering support from more than 100 countries, the waiver push has run up against opposition from powerful nations such as the U.S., the U.K., and Canada, which have thwarted the will of a supermajority of WTO member nations in order to ensure that pharmaceutical corporations retain monopoly control over coronavirus vaccine technology.”

That opposition was denounced by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who tweeted last month, “Denying poor countries the Covid vaccine to allow Pharma to profit from IP is cruel and morally bankrupt.”

“This should be a no-brainer,” wrote Khanna. “President Biden must grant the waiver so that millions around the world can develop the vaccine and save lives.”