The global pandemic has been a boon for the pharmaceutical industry, which stands to make billions. But first, it's trying to throttle poorer countries’ access to the vaccine.
If you thought a global pandemic was enough to ward off the ruthless capitalist tendencies of large pharmaceutical companies and their allied governments, you would be wrong.
The international humanitarian organisation Doctors Without Borders keeps track of which countries oppose the lifting of patent restrictions that would likely save millions of lives in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and who supports it.
When all the countries are tallied up geographically, the political map exhibits one undeniable truth. Rich Western countries, which are likely to earn billions in taxes once the vaccine is exported globally, are resisting any attempts to loosen their monopoly on the vaccines.
In a watershed moment in October of last year, India and South Africa requested for the World Trade Organization to allow countries to suspend or not enforce patents of other types of intellectual property until there is global herd immunity.
Those attempts have largely floundered in the face of Western opposition and the lobbying muscle of large pharmaceutical companies.
According to Doctors Without Borders a handful of countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the EU, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, the UK and the US are blocking or delaying discussions to lift patent restrictions.
The president of Doctors Without Borders has urged countries to “stop obstructing and show the leadership required to deliver on the ‘global solidarity’ they have so often declared during this pandemic.”
If the Covid-19 pandemic has shown anything is how quickly governments can muster resources and implement far reaching and draconian policies to stop and tackle the pandemic.
Now that Western countries have secured the vast majority of vaccines in the world and are well underway in getting their people immunised - patents and emergency policies that could help the rest of the world have become issues worth negotiating.
When the vaccines started rolling out towards the end of last year, it looked as if, for a moment, pharmaceutical companies could bask in that rarest of commodities for the industry: public goodwill.
Yet, that goodwill has quickly given way to a familiar cry where vaccines pharmaceutical companies are only interested in their bottom line, irrespective of the ongoing global pandemic.
In a recent interview, the billionaire Bill Gates, who through his foundation has been a powerful voice in coordinating the fight against the Covid-19, advocated against sharing the vaccine recipe with developing countries.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also convinced Oxford University, which teamed with AstraZeneca on the Covid-19 vaccine, not to donate the rights to the recipe, as it had earlier promised.
Online reactions to Bill Gates refusal to share the vaccine with the world's poor have garnered widespread condemnation.
"Bill Gates dedicated his entire professional life to ruthlessly consolidating his monopoly, why on earth would he share vaccines," said one online user.
When Gates was running Microsoft, he was deeply wedded to the idea that patents could never be broken, and it's a mantra he has largely continued. Gates is now using his significant clout over the global Covid-19 response to stop generic vaccines being made in developing countries.
One of the reasons Gates cites for his reluctance to campaign for suspending patents is that it wouldn't make a difference because only a few countries have the capacity to make vaccines.
An AP investigation has found that to be demonstrably incorrect. At least several countries in Africa and Southeast Asia are ready and willing to start making vaccines at short notice.
It's not just Bill Gates lobbying against such efforts.
Using current geopolitical tensions between the US, Russia and China, pharmaceutical companies are lobbying US lawmakers against sharing the vaccine recipe.
Their move comes as poorer countries struggle to get their hands on vaccines. And when they do manage to get ahold of vaccines, many end up paying more than their wealthier Western counterparts.
In private meetings, lobbying firms representing pharmaceutical companies warned White House officials that giving up intellectual property rights could also end up helping China and Russia.
As countries like India continue to reel from the pandemic, there is increasing pressure on Western governments to make concessions and suspend patents in an effort to bring the pandemic under control.
In their effort to ensure that as many countries as possible get access to the vaccine, Doctors Without Borders is warning governments that the history books will judge them harshly if they fail to live up to their commitments to share the vaccine, even if that means sharing the patents.