Opinion | The West Has Been Hoarding More Than Vaccines

By Walden Bello

Mr. Bello is a co-founder of Focus on the Global South and an adjunct professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

I’ve had my first Covid-19 vaccine jab, drawn from the limited supply of the AstraZeneca doses that has made its way to the developing world. As a senior, I’m part of a so-called priority sector eligible to receive it in the Philippines, a country where less than 0.3 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated — versus 32 percent in the United States. I’m one of the lucky ones.

Globally, more than 1.16 billion doses of Covid vaccine have been administered as of May 3. Over 80 percent have gone to people in high- or upper-middle-income countries and only 0.2 percent to those in low-income countries like the Philippines. At present, India is suffering from a devastating surge of the virus, with over 350,000 infections and 3,000 deaths daily recorded over the past few days. (These figures most likely undercount the full extent of the horror.) Only 2 percent of its people have been fully vaccinated. While President Biden’s recent deployment of aid to India is commendable, fresh supplies and 60 million potentially spoiled doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine will not solve the problem.

On April 23, a group of 24 NGOs, including the Citizens Trade Campaign and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, issued a petition calling on Mr. Biden to embrace one potential solution: to back the temporary suspension of a set of intellectual-property provisions that prevent developing nations’ access to the technology needed to make their own versions of Western-made Covid-19 vaccines available as quickly as possible.

These provisions make up the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, known as Trips, which strictly enforces patent monopolies for a minimum of 20 years. This change may sound like technocratic legalese. But its impact would be straightforward: A short-term Trips waiver would allow developing nations to quickly ramp up vaccine production and save lives at an affordable cost, as Public Citizen explains.

While the petition has garnered two million signatures, including those of Democratic Senators Bernie Sanders and Tammy Baldwin, the Trips waiver’s opponents are formidable. The big pharmaceutical companies are in the forefront, with the support of industry groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Telecommunications Industry Association. They fear that even a brief loosening of intellectual-property rules could establish a precedent for future emergencies. A threat to Trips is a threat to future riches, it seems.

When the W.T.O. General Council meets on Wednesday, Mr. Biden should not be deterred by its wishes. Instead, he must use his considerable sway over the organization to persuade other rich nations to support a Trips waiver.

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