Against the backdrop of a stalled global vaccination campaign, the pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the globe. As infection rates and death toll continue to mount, countries like India, which largely escaped the first wave of the pandemic, face a total collapse of their healthcare system. Meanwhile, the virus continues to mutate, spawning more transmittable, if not deadlier, variants. Experts fear that the mutating virus could render the current regiment of vaccines ineffective within a year. With vaccine production concentrated in the hands of only a few pharmaceutical companies — all of which are beset with manufacturing problems — it is unlikely that these companies will meet the global demand. More pharmaceutical companies aren’t joining the effort to manufacture vaccines because the vaccine manufacturers have patents and other intellectual property rights over the vaccines they have produced and, so far, are unwilling to waive their rights.
That during this unprecedented humanitarian crisis, pharmaceutical companies continue to put profits before human lives speaks volumes about the moral bankruptcy of the current neoliberal global order. While many countries in Africa still lack access to vaccines and haven’t yet administered a single dose, Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson, and AstraZeneca continue to pay hefty sums of dividends to their shareholders, even turning some of them into billionaires. Monopolisation of vaccine production is a recent phenomenon, and it’s only due to the widespread sharing of vaccine production technology smallpox was eradicated. Moreover, it shouldn’t be forgotten, least of all by governments, that public research played a crucial role in the development of all the COVID-vaccines. Thus, governments concerned with the common weal have both the right and responsibility to pursue any means necessary to bolster the vaccine production process — including temporarily suspending the current vaccine patents. If we are to return to normal life, most of us need to get vaccinated — a feat achievable only if vaccines are affordable. Furthermore, as the People’s Vaccine Alliance has pointed out, waiving the COVID jab patents isn’t enough; we also need to ensure that vaccines, tests, and treatments are provided at affordable costs. From vaccines to life-saving medicines, pharmaceutical companies based in the global South, many of which can produce vaccines in bulk, could play a critical role in keeping the prices down.
Cynics have rightly pointed out that, if not for the sake of humanitarian concerns, it is still in the material and political interests of wealthy Western governments that vaccines find their way to the less privileged in the global South. Because no vaccine can provide long-term immunity against the virus if it continues to mutate by preying on those unvaccinated. As unjust as it is, the current international capitalist order cannot sustain the brunt of the enormous losses piling due to the restrictions imposed. While it is in the interests of vaccine manufacturers to hold onto their patents, governments worldwide cannot afford to rest on their laurels without risking serious political backlash. The American people voted Donald Trump out of the presidency because of his abysmal handling of the pandemic. The same fate awaits those leaders in other countries who cannot be the leader their citizens require them to be. It is high time that leaders worldwide for once put the interests of their citizens before those of their corporate donors and cut the Gordian Knot by suspending vaccine patents.