World leaders and experts say sharing vaccine know-how is the best chance to fight the pandemic. But the industry disagrees.
More than 100 Nobel laureates and dozens of prominent figures including former leaders of the UK and France have called on US President Joe Biden to support waiving patents on Covid-19 vaccines, which are desperately needed to fight the pandemic.
Sharing knowledge and know-how can greatly increase production of vaccines that are currently being produced by a handful of industry monopolies, they wrote in a letter, according to the Financial Times.
The call comes at a crucial time as various variants of the Covid-19 virus have wreaked havoc in countries from Brazil to India. Governments are struggling to get hold of the required number of doses.
Even India, which leads the world in vaccine production capacity, has decided to buy the shots from Pfizer, Moderna and other western pharmaceutical firms, as more patients flood hospitals and death rates soar.
Most of the developing countries were relying on India where the Serum Institute, a private vaccine maker, is manufacturing the AstraZeneca jabs under a license.
The COVAX facility, a programme jointly run by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and GAVI, aims to vaccinate 20 percent of the population in dozens of poor and low-income countries. It intends to do that mostly using the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine.
The urgency to scale up vaccine production is being felt even more as some governments are reluctant to use AstraZeneca vaccine, which has reportedly caused fatal side effects in patients.
The Serum Institute of India had to divert supply to the local market after an upsurge in Covid-19 cases, leading to shortages in other parts of the world.
That was one reason Pakistan was forced last month to allow commercial import and sale of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, officials said.
India and South Africa have led the calls at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to waive off patents and remove intellectual property protection that COVID-19 medical interventions enjoy. More than 50 nations are backing them.
But rich countries including the US, UK and the European Union have opposed the move. The Pharma industry has long argued that it needs patent protection to recover its investment, which goes into research and development of new medicines.
Western firms also argue that even if patents are removed it won’t greatly help increase production as drug makers in developing countries don’t have the manufacturing facilities or the expertise to produce complex vaccines.
For instance, Johnson & Johnson has signed a deal with South Africa’s Aspen Pharmacare on its single-dose vaccine. But Aspen will only fill the imported solution into vials and package it for distribution.
Experts say what’s happening right now is vaccine nationalism as rich countries, which have the money to buy the jabs, are vaccinating their own people first.
More than 825 million people have received at least one shot of a vaccine, according to Our World in Data.
Vaccine development generally takes years, but for Covid-19 the entire process including the expensive three-tier trials was completed in a matter of months.
But Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca have either received direct government financing or made use of publicly-funded research.
Left on their own, developing countries are now looking toward China and Russia, which are distributing their vaccines free of cost.
There are past precedents where governments have stepped in and forced multinationals to share patents so generic makers can increase production of a drug.
One high profile case involved South Africa, which in the late 1990s decided to introduce generic drugs to treat HIV/Aids in a bid to counter the high-priced treatments sold by multinational companies.
Despite Aids killing millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa, 39 companies took South Africa to court. But the legal action had to be abandoned because the companies realised their position was leading to negative publicity.
For the Covid-19 vaccines, pharma companies have evaded similar scrutiny by keeping vaccine prices low and striking deals with governments, which are desperate to revitalise their economies.
Supply constraints mean that it won’t be until 2024 before a sizable part of the population in low-income countries is vaccinated, experts say.