A health-care worker administers a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: Mat Napo / Unsplash

In October 2020, months before COVID-19 vaccines became available in wealthy countries, South Africa and India proposed a way to make them accessible throughout the world, for rich and poor alike.

The two countries asked member states of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive the usual drug patent protections for COVID vaccines.

That would allow countries in the global south – most notably India, which is home to a large pharmaceutical industry – to manufacture the vaccines themselves, in quantities sufficient to immunize their populations.

There was a flurry of interest in this idea early in 2021.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and many non-governmental groups, such as Amnesty International and the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), promoted the patent waiver as a matter of basic equity and social justice.

Somewhat surprisingly, even the Biden administration in the U.S. expressed support in May of this year. Indeed, more than 100 other WTO member states now favour the waiver. But many powerful voices are still opposed, including the 27 member states of the European Union.

Canada, as is its wont, is vague and wishy-washy on its position. When asked about the waiver directly, government ministers prevaricate and deflect, talking about other actions Canada is taking to make vaccines more widely available.

In reality, the bottom line for the Canadian government is that it continues to oppose waiving patent protection for COVID vaccines.

Pharmaceutical companies are, not surprisingly, ferociously hostile to any attempt to monkey with their intellectual property privileges. They have not opted to follow the example of the inventor of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk, who chose not to patent his invention so that it would be as widely available as possible.

The Salk and subsequent Sabin vaccines have vastly reduced the prevalence of a crippling disease – a disease which afflicted, among tens of thousands of others, U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt.

New Democrats doggedly pursue patent waiver in Canada

As for the COVID vaccine patent issue, it is back on the front burner, thanks to the new Omicron variant of the virus. Many in wealthy countries such as Canada are finally getting the message that we will never beat this virus, or even bring it under some measure of control, until all the people of the world have access to vaccines.

In Canada, the New Democrats pushed this cause earlier this year, and they have returned to the charge once again.

Jagmeet Singh, the New Democratic leader, puts it this way:

“This new variant of COVID-19 makes it clear that no one is protected from COVID-19 until everyone is protected. The Liberals need to stop putting the profits of big pharmaceuticals ahead of the health and well-being of people. Taking steps to allow more developing countries to produce the vaccine will save lives both abroad and here at home.”

The New Democratic health critic Don Davies is inviting Canadians to write their MPs and ask them to support waiving what the WTO calls the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (or TRIPS) for COVID vaccines.

As it stands now, giant and profitable drug companies which own the patents for most of the COVID vaccines effectively control the global supply. They do so by doling out a limited number of manufacturing licences – for big fees, of course. In fact, the fees for poorer countries are higher than for wealthier ones.

And so, we have a kind of global class-system for vaccines. There are the haves and the have-nots. Vaccination rates for countries in the developing world lag far behind those for wealthier countries.

The rate of vaccination here in Canada is close to 80 per cent of the population. In South Korea it is about the same, while in Portugal it is well over 85 per cent. In many wealthy countries, including the U.S., if the rate is somewhat lower, it is due to widespread vaccine hesitancy, not lack of vaccines.

In the poorer countries of the global south, where vaccines are hard to come by, the vaccination rate is far lower.

In Indonesia, with 275 million people, just over a third of the population is vaccinated. In India, with 1.4 billion people, less than a third of the population is vaccinated, while in South Africa, with 60 million people, it is less than a quarter.

And South Africa is way ahead of most other sub-Saharan African countries.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with over 200 million people, the vaccination rate is less than two per cent. In Ghana, it is less than three per cent, and in Kenya, just over five per cent.

The patent bargain not appropriate to a pandemic

The point of patents is to encourage risk-taking and innovation by guaranteeing those who take those risks will make a profit.

It is, at its heart, a kind of devil’s bargain. As researcher and writer Brink Lindsey notes in a paper for the U.S.-based Brookings Institution:

“The basic patent bargain, even when well struck, is to pay for more innovation down the road with slower diffusion of innovation today.”

In a pandemic, Lindsey argues, the “bargain is a bad one and should be rejected entirely… Giving drug companies the power to hold things up by blocking competitors and raising prices pushes in the completely wrong direction.”

We have to get the patent issue right now, at this time, not only to conquer COVID-19 but because we will inevitably face other, similar crises in the future. Lindsey puts it this way:

“Urbanization, the spread of factory-farming methods, and globalization all combine to increase the odds that a new virus will make the jump from animals to humans and then spread rapidly around the world. Prior to the current pandemic, the 21st century already saw outbreaks of SARS, H1N1, MERS, and Ebola. Everything we do and learn in the current crisis should be viewed from the perspective of getting ready for next time.”

As well, and this is not a minor point, drug companies received huge subsidies from the public purse in the multiple billions of dollars to assist in the development of the vaccines. It doesn’t make any rational sense for those companies to have unlimited rights to extract huge profits from what were, in essence, public-private partnerships.

The truth is that public money eliminated the usual risk factor drug companies face when developing new medicines. In Lindsey’s words:

“The pharmaceutical industry has no legitimate basis for objecting to a patent waiver. … Drug makers now qualify for the superior benefits of direct government support; they no longer need the default benefits of patent support. Arguments that a waiver would deprive drug makers of the incentives they need to keep developing new drugs, when they are presently receiving the most favorable (sic) incentives available, can be dismissed as the worst sort of special pleading.”

Note that this analysis comes not from a socialist ideologue, but from an American free enterpriser.

Even those deeply committed to the notional free market as the measure – and incentive-izer – of all things, have come to recognize the failure of the market to adequately address the current pandemic crisis.

Is the Canadian government listening?

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...