Finding a vaccine against the coronavirus is a biochemical challenge. Ensuring universal access to it, however, is a political choice.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the search for effective treatments and a vaccine to stem the spread of the pandemic has generated much political debate and many headlines. The race to find a vaccine has been particularly fierce among big pharmaceutical companies competing to become the first to commercialise it on the market. According to the New York Times, more than 135 vaccines are being developed, with two reaching the phase of large-scale efficacy tests—the final stage before deployment.
These companies are prime recipients of billions of euro in public money to support research and development to find a vaccine. The European Commission, through its Coronavirus Global Response, has raised €7.4 billion towards this end.
A major motivation for many of these efforts is the desire to find a cure for the pandemic that has infected millions of people around the world, killed hundreds of thousands, and disproportionately affected the most vulnerable. This however is only part of the picture.
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Big pharmaceutical corporates are aggressively seeking what in the business world is known as ‘first-mover advantage’. The risk is that the first to develop an effective Covid-19 vaccine files for a patent which could make it sole supplier. Shareholders are pouring billions into these companies, in the hope of reaping big dividends.
Such exclusivity usually applies for 20 years but companies are known to manipulate the system to secure extensions. They can make minor changes, including to the colour of a pill, to renew a patent—changes which may not have benefits for patients but are sufficient to extend control over the drug and who can thus have access to it.
Crucially, patents allow businesses to set prices—extremely high prices for first-mover pharmaceutical companies able to exploit the absence of alternatives in the market. This artificial inflation drives up costs for our public healthcare systems and increases the proportion of public money going to multinational companies, many based abroad, turning access to lifesaving drugs from a universal right into a privilege. Private health has already flourished in some European Union countries at the behest of the ‘troika’ (of the commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) supervising bailout programmes.
The current arrangements mean that those who are able to pay for drugs will obtain privileged access to a Covid-19 vaccine. Those unable to pay will be left stranded. We have seen how this story ends. An unjust and unequal system will mean millions of lost lives.
But it needn’t be this way. Alternatives exist. Putting the public good above private interests means respecting the right to cure in public healthcare systems with universal access.
I am greatly inspired by the actions of the freedom-fighter, and South Africa’s first democratically-elected president, Nelson Mandela, who in the 1990s challenged the international patents system and the predatory behaviour of pharmaceutical companies. Mandela accused big companies of exploitation by charging exorbitant prices for HIV-AIDS drugs. He and his successor circumvented international patent rules to allow manufacturers to copy expensive drugs, delivering lower costs and saving lives.
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Multinational corporations, backed by the US government, took the South African government to court, with Mandela as first defendant. Following international uproar, supported by a vibrant grassroots campaign, the drug companies however dropped the case, marking a huge victory for the right to cure.
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has said that a Covid-19 vaccine would be universally accessible. But she has given no assurances as to how that would happen.
We need guarantees. The current system is broken. We cannot afford to lose more lives because of some companies’ desire to treat our health as a profitable commodity.
A progressive alliance across Europe, in which I take part, has launched a campaign to demand, first, that the EU condition research grants to pharmaceutical companies on universal access and, secondly, that the discriminatory and unjust patenting system be reformed, drawing on alternatives such as a universal patent pool.
A Covid-19 vaccine must be a public good. We have a right to cure.