Vax Charity is Not Justice

A Call for Universal and Equitable Access to Vaccines

Amazonas, in Brazil, where Regina Maria Lana (right) is from, ranks as the Brazilian state where the most Indigenous people have lost their lives during the pandemic. PHOTOGRAPH: IMF/RAPHAEL ALVES

As I write this, India is reporting more than 400,000 new COVID-19 infections a day. Doctors estimate that the actual number of cases may be up to 10 times higher. India’s testing has shown over 20 per cent positivity rates across the country, and up to 60 per cent in some cities.

A global pandemic has no solution that is not also global. The arbitrary borders of nations are porous and will always be that way. There’s no cure for the coronavirus. Vaccination is our best hope. Here in Canada, we compare ourselves to the U.S. and the UK and scream at the injustice of just half our people being vaccinated. But the vaccination rate in Brazil is about 14 per cent, India’s is around 12 per cent, and South Africa’s, 1 per cent. Then, there are countries that will not see vaccine rollout until well into 2023. But the answer is not for the West to donate surplus vaccines. Vaccine charity is not the solution. Charity is rarely a sustainable, or dignified, model. Patent justice and the transfer of technology is what we need.

Recognizing our common humanity requires that we ensure universal and equitable vaccine access: rich nations hoarding vaccines — the U.S. has 40 million doses of AstraZeneca alone and Canada will end up with tens of millions of doses it won’t use — while the people of poor nations are dying is obscene. Who can look without despair at the mass graves being dug in Brazil for the thousands of people dying of COVID every day? Who can see the funeral pyres burning brightly enough to turn the night skies light in India and not see the country’s pain and horror?


Safety for All

None of us will be safe till all of us are safe. The West will never be protected if the rest of the world is not also vaccinated. We are already living through the spread of “variants of concern” originating from the UK, Brazil, South Africa and now, India. Variants emerge through transmission, so more transmission means more variants. Uncontrolled transmission leads to uncontrollable variants. And some of those will escape the vaccines we have. Who wants to be done with lockdowns? Who wants to travel again?

All those of us who despair at the nightly news, and those who want to take a trip south, all of us have a vested interest in ensuring that COVID vaccines are mass produced in local hubs and quickly distributed across the world. And hand in hand with vaccines, PPE, medical devices and the plethora of medications used to treat COVID need to be made and distributed across the world.

You may think — a la Bill Gates and Justin Trudeau — that many countries can’t safely produce COVID vaccines. You are wrong. There is every chance that the COVID vaccination Trudeau received was made in India. And there is a wealth of untapped global production capacity. India alone can produce and distribute millions of doses of vaccine and medications a day. Add to that the capacity that exists here in Canada, but also in Egypt, in Brazil, in South Africa, in Chile and so on.

But factories that could produce the essential medications sit idle because of patent rights and technology- transfer issues. One of the biggest barriers to getting vaccine production going? Intellectual property rights (or patent protections). Another is the lack of real-world knowledge about how to retrofit and revamp production facilities so they can begin manufacturing medications and supplies. The World Health Organization acknowledges this fact and has set up a hub to facilitate technology transfer. But the Pfizers and Modernas and AZs are not stepping up to form these partnerships.


Suspend Patents

The West needs to support those countries that are calling for the World Trade Organization to suspend patents. And then we need to go further and investigate the ethics and the use of patent protections when it comes to all life-saving drugs. There is no inherent right to patent protection. This legal right came into existence to encourage innovations that ease suffering and protect human life. Evidence shows that basic medical research and innovation are publicly funded; ending patent protections may reduce pharmaceutical profits but it wouldn’t have to impact research. Big Pharma doesn’t spend millions on researching drugs that are necessary — they focus on drugs that make them money. Pfizer, for instance, made $25 billion U.S. on Viagra before its patents expired in 2020. Consider also that all these patent protections and profits haven’t led to pharmaceutical breakthroughs that would stamp out killer diseases in the “tropics.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes a list of “Neglected Tropical Diseases” that “cause substantial illness for more than one billion people globally.” Who’s aware that Lymphatic Filariasis is a risk for a billion people in 81 countries? How much pharmaceutical research money has gone to curing it? Who produces the medicines used to treat it? Are these donated? Offered as aid by a rich country? Instead of a drip of research and the occasional donation, why don’t we have global systems of knowledge-sharing and essential-medication production?

Access to essential medications should be a universal right. COVID is just one more warning to us that the production and distribution of essential medications should not be about charity. It should be about justice.

Archana Rampure lives in this land we call Canada.