Canada’s refusal to support more than 100 developing countries in their efforts to rapidly mass-produce vaccine doses is un-Canadian. The federal government’s opposition to a proposal brought forward from India and South Africa on behalf of half the world’s countries is bizarre given that this once-in-a-century pandemic requires a global solution to save lives and restore economies.
It’s also hypocritical. Just one year ago, Canada itself passed emergency legislation permitting the government to suspend drug patent rights in light of the pandemic threat. It made sense then (as it does now). Why should pharmaceutical companies maintain an iron grip on coronavirus vaccines that were rapidly developed through one of the most remarkable global scientific collaborations in human history?
Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and other pharmaceutical behemoths are no more the owners of coronavirus vaccines than the publicly funded scientists who supported their astoundingly rapid development. The medical and scientific communities essentially dropped what they were doing last winter to focus on the novel virus, be it in laboratories or hospitals.
The proposal to the World Trade Organization seeks to expand vaccine production by relaxing patents in an effort to swing the pendulum away from wealthy countries, which to date have hoarded most of the vaccines available. It’s predicted that 85 poorer countries won’t receive any vaccines until 2023. In an egregious example of the imbalance between rich and poor nations, at the end of January, more than 80 million doses had been distributed in the wealthiest countries compared to less than one thousand doses in the poorest countries.
There are four main arguments that support removing patent barriers that slow vaccine production and distribution.
First, there is a biological argument: The longer COVID-19 is allowed to flourish in an endemic fashion, the more likely it is to evolve into variants. These variants caused immense concern in December, leading to more restrictive border and travel policies in Canada that harmed airlines, business and tourism. Fears that variants may poke through vaccine-acquired immunity and natural immunity developed to date are not unfounded; all of the vaccines approved by Health Canada are less effective against both the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variants that emerged in the United Kingdom and South Africa. Those variants, which have spread as far away as Australia, have forced vaccine-makers back to the drawing board and introduced the prospect that boosters or entirely new vaccines will be needed to end the pandemic. The quicker we squash COVID-19 globally, the less likely we are to suffer wave after wave of infections.
Second, there is the moral argument that goes beyond the calls for equity that seem self-evident and have been endorsed in the Canadian context. In places with fewer health resources, outbreaks are more devastating than in places with established resources. A lack of health-care resources in Canada’s territories led worried governments to prioritize vaccination of northern populations, even in places that had not had COVID-19 cases for months because of the predicted consequences of an outbreak in communities without doctors and nurses, let alone intensive care units. Yet the moral imperative we have applied to these communities seems only to apply within our borders.
The third argument is economic. A January study commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce predicted that a rich-nations-first strategy would wipe USD 9 trillion out of the global economy, with nearly half those losses hitting wealthy countries like Canada. Falling prey to pharmaceutical companies’ claims that patents motivate their spirit of ingenuity when investing in risky vaccine development – which brings potential cash cow products to market – shows a lack of creativity during this time of crisis in redesigning the financial incentives that drive pharmaceutical companies, particularly when public academia has contributed so greatly to vaccine development.
Finally, there is the historical argument. We have been here before. The HIV pandemic, now in its fifth decade, has infected 75 million people, less than the 118 million people infected by SARS Co-V 2 in just over a year. About 33 million people have died from HIV since it was discovered in 1983 compared to the 2.5 million people who have died from COVID-19 since the World Health Organization declared the pandemic one year ago this month. We seem to have forgotten the lessons learned after political and corporate dithering over patents and drug costs allowed HIV to spread.
SARS CoV 2 is a formidable virus – remarkable courage and ingenuity is required to overcome its threat. Thanks to the efforts of the international scientific community, we have the vaccines that can help us beat COVID-19. Now, Canada needs to inject leadership on the world stage and support developing countries. Vaccine policy is about more than diplomacy and charity; it’s about ending the pandemic and depriving COVID-19 of more human victims and economic turmoil.
Patents in the COVID-19 context are nothing less than deadly tools of corporate greed. I’ve seen too many people die from COVID-19. Now that science has prevailed, every life lost from this point forward is a consequence of political failures to vaccinate every person on the planet.