In a rare piece of good COVID-19 news, researchers in Texas are developing a COVID-19 vaccine called Corbevax that developers say will be based on conventional vaccine technology, will be cheaper to produce and less complicated to store. Crucially, they do not intend to patent the vaccine, hoping this will make it more accessible in low-income countries.
The arrival of Corbevax is a welcome sign, but it also begs the question: why haven’t the patents for the more well-known vaccines — such as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — been waived already? These vaccines have been available for more than a year. If they had been evenly distributed around the world, it may have helped prevent the emergence of the Omicron variant and the quasi-lockdown we currently find ourselves in.
Some political figures have called for patent protections on existing COVID-19 vaccines to be dropped entirely. For example, New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh recently called on the Liberal party to support a waiver. Proponents argue that by doing so, lower-income countries could produce their own vaccines.
This would go a long way toward closing the massive gap in vaccination rates between rich and poor nations. According to the Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity, only seven per cent of the population in low-income countries have received their first dose as of late November, in contrast to almost 64 per cent in high-income countries.
Meanwhile, rich nations have been hoarding and wasting vaccines while people in less affluent countries are dying in droves. The One campaign estimates G7 countries had almost 600 million unused vaccines by the end of last year.
These same affluent nations, along with those in Europe, have pledged to deliver 1.8 billion doses to poorer countries through the Covax program before the end of 2022. However, as of October, just 261 million have been sent, amounting to only 14 per cent of the goal.
In an uncharacteristically generous fashion, the U.S. has pledged 1.1 billion shots. It has only delivered roughly 177 million so far — more than other nations, but still just 16 per cent of the amount promised. Canada has pledged 50 million doses to low-income countries but so far has only delivered about 12.7 million of them.
Lower-income nations were recently insulted when rich countries “donated” over 100 million vaccine doses that were too close to their expiry dates to be effectively distributed in time. The number of vaccines was also too large for the recipients to store, so the offers were rejected and most of those vaccines went to waste.
Opponents and industry figures argue waiving patents will stifle medical innovation by removing the financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies. However, these arguments are just a smokescreen for corporate greed.
The pharmaceutical industry is already one of the most profitable in the world. A 2020 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found the median net income margin — the percentage of revenue received after deducting expenses — of 35 large pharma companies is nearly double that of 357 non-pharma companies listed in a stock index that tracks 500 of the largest publicly traded stocks in the U.S.
Further, pharmaceutical companies have already made astronomical profits from their COVID-19 vaccines. In 2021, Pfizer expected to make nearly as much revenue from its COVID-19 vaccine alone as it did from all sales in 2020.
Before the pandemic, Moderna had an average revenue of approximately $100 million a year. Now, Moderna estimated it would earn $15 to $18 billion in 2021. This is a 65 per cent profit margin on a vaccine that received nearly a billion dollars in public funding from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.
So much for the supposed independence of the free market.
Putting aside inconvenient facts about the public funding of vaccines, how far do we allow the argument that capitalism breeds innovation to go? Is there no scenario in which the dire consequences of a public health catastrophe outweigh the perks of the free market?
You do not have to be an opponent of capitalism to see that rigidly clinging to the rights of corporate entities in the face of such a widespread social crisis is misguided. For those die-hard free market enthusiasts unmoved by arguments based on social responsibility, how much global economic strife should the world be willing to accept to maintain rich nations’ unyielding ideological commitment to intellectual property rights?
Even if innovation were reduced by waiving patents, innovation has already been diminished by a global pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the global economy and ruined the livelihoods of numerous aspiring and innovative entrepreneurs. COVID-19 hasn’t exactly been great for profits, either.
Speaking of innovation, the researchers working on Corbevax say this obsession with innovative technology caused governments to overlook much simpler and cheaper vaccine options. The researchers say they tried — unsuccessfully — to attract public funding, but the government chose to lend their support elsewhere.
Pharmaceutical companies need to get out of the way of governments around the world and drop the patents so vaccines can be produced locally in the countries that need them most. Governments in wealthy countries have a moral obligation to throw their weight behind efforts to waive international patent protections. The next Omicron could be around the corner if we don’t.