Saturday, 16 January, 2021

Ensuring Access To Vaccine

Hira Bahadur Thapa

At a time when there is scientific breakthrough in developing COVID-19 vaccines, low- and middle-income countries are battling to procure them on time. These countries can’t afford to buy, transport and store themselves, let alone produce the vaccines. The bright part of science is that some vaccines have been developed at record breaking speed. SARS-CoV-2 has spread farther and faster than any virus in a century. Millions of lives have been perished. The second and third wave of the life-threatening virus has become worrisome in Europe in the recent days.

Ever since the coronavirus emerged in December last year, scientists around the world worked day and night at laboratories to develop COVID-19 vaccines. Their perseverance has finally been justified with the resounding success of vaccines creation. The examples are Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna inventions, among others. Happily, both products of these pharmaceutical companies have received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration for use in the community. The Americans are being inoculated with these vaccines, whose effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 has been claimed to be around 95 per cent as per preliminary reports.
Furthermore, reports suggest that 54 different vaccines are being tested for safety and efficacy. Of them, 12 have entered phase 3 clinical trials - the final checkpoints. Hopefully, more vaccines will be available in the future but one must not forget that vaccines will not immediately end the pandemic. Scientists will have to research more to find out how long vaccine induced immunity will last. Millions of doses will have to be manufactured, allocated, and distributed before herd immunity is achieved. There are genuine concerns on the part of low- and middle-income countries at the moment. They fear that their populations won’t be immunised fairly and quickly. The tendency of vaccine hoarding by the rich countries reasonably fuels their anxieties.
Available reports demonstrate that the high-income and rich countries have already bought up the majority of the global supply of vaccines. Moreover, they have funded the development of vaccines in many cases. Based on current purchasing agreements, European Union could vaccinate its residents twice, Britain and the US could do four times over and Canada six times over.
Besides, vaccine nationalism pursued by the high-income rich countries, the low- and middle-income countries are financially constrained to buy the vaccines. Preliminary reports indicate that costs of vaccines, unless generic versions are allowed and manufactured less expensively in the developing countries, would be too high for poor populations to afford. The beacon of hope for low- and middle-income countries is the World Health Organisation plus other organisations-led donor funded COVAX facility. Under this framework GAVI, a global vaccine alliance, Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations are collaborating to provide vaccines to the poor countries free of cost. But this facility needs to be rendered to billions of populations around the world. At best the 20 per cent of the populations of recipient countries are expected to be immunised through COVAX facility.
Data collected by Duke University suggest that COVAX facility has reserved only 700,000 vaccine doses so far. High-income countries have reserved 6 billion doses for themselves. Low-income countries have a combined population of 1.7 billion people. There is massive funding gap in the operationalisation of COVAX facility. Donors have provided US $5 billion despite need for US $43 billion. Consequently, the targets set by COVAX of immunising 20 per cent of low- and middle-income countries are far from being reached.
Poor countries can’t afford vaccines unless assisted. Nepal being one of them looks forward to donor agencies. With current infection rate of 13.9, Nepal struggles to fight coronavirus successfully. Limitations of timely immunisation in one hand and absence of herd immunity on the other will put her in a precarious situation in the foreseeable future. We should, as responsible citizens, continue complying with safety measures such as mask wearing, social distancing, crowd avoidance and hand washing. This is necessary because our vaccination plans may be delayed by several months, if not years due to financial and logistical obstacles.
Some WHO officials predict that it may take almost a year from now for the low- and middle-income countries to sufficiently immunise their populations in view of inadequate supplies of vaccines and their attendant costs for safe transportation and storage. Global demand for COVID-19 vaccines will out space supply. Vaccines are the asset manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, which utilising public funds, employ thousands of research scientists for months and years. Their scientific innovation is incentivised by offering them patents. These patents are protected by the World Trade Organisation’s intellectual property rights.

Considering the scientists’ research, which is their knowledge to invent new vaccines, patents are essential, however, in times of global health emergency like COVID-19, there is a valid argument behind the proposal that the WTO should provide waiver for the intellectual property rights for the greater benefit of humanity. A proposal to exempt member countries from enforcing some patents mandated by WTO is under discussion in the multilateral forum since October. Lobbyists of patents argue that waiver will stifle scientific innovation but seen from the humanitarian lens suspension of such patents under exceptional circumstances is justified.
There are serious obstacles to distributing COVID-1 vaccines quickly and fairly around the world. To overcome them one of the effective ways would be licensing the drug manufacturers in the developing countries to produce generic versions of vaccines. WTO debate on patent exemption should be guided by the principle that human lives matter more than corporate profits.

(Thapa was Foreign Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister from 2008-09.

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