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No one is safe, until everyone is safe – there can’t be global vaccine access without breaking Big Pharma monopolies

Rather than governments fighting to get a bigger slice of the pie, Big Pharma should share the recipe, writes Clive Lewis MP. | PA Images

5 min read

Broken promises, limited vaccine roll-out, and now the EU export threat, are stark reminders why we can’t leave the global pandemic response to the whims of the profit-driven pharmaceutical sector.

Should the EU get priority access to more vaccines? Should the UK donate a percentage of the vaccines we’ve secured to charitable initiatives? Debates around vaccine shortages and unequal access have been raging for months. Unless governments and the pharmaceutical industry change tact now, inequity will continue.

As long as inequity continues, the pandemic will continue. Rather than further accelerating vaccine nationalism, preferential supply and rationing, we should put our efforts into scaling-up manufacturing so that enough vaccine doses can be made for the whole world to benefit.

To achieve this scale-up in manufacturing we need pharmaceutical companies to give up their monopolies and to share the knowledge of how these vaccines can be produced. This will not only speed up and maximise manufacturing capacity; it will also make products more affordable by enabling generic competition to help drive down prices. Rather than governments fighting to get a bigger slice of the pie, Big Pharma should share the recipe.

The dire need to expand vaccine production is heightened considering recent projections which show that most lower income nations will take until 2024 to achieve mass Covid-19 immunisation. Last month the Director General of the WHO warned the world is on the edge of a “catastrophic moral failure”, with just 25 doses administered across all poor countries compared with 39 million in wealthier ones.

Expanding global access is not just a moral imperative, it’s the strategic and economic one too. New analysis highlights that even if wealthy countries vaccinate themselves by the middle of the year, leaving poor countries largely shut out, it could knock $9 trillion off the global economy due to interrupted international commerce and supply chains

Matt Hancock has rightly said that “increasing the overall supply of vaccines” will help address vaccine nationalism and ensure global access. But rather than the government using its position to remove barriers for a scale-up in vaccine manufacturing, it’s fighting to keep them. 

Leaving vast swathes of the world unprotected will allow the virus to continue to mutate and render the vaccines, tests and treatments of today potentially useless tomorrow

Shamefully, the UK is opposing a landmark World Trade Organisation proposal that would see a temporary removal of Big Pharma monopolies on all Covid-19 health products. The aim of this proposal - now supported by 100 countries - is to prevent patents, trade secrets and other intellectual property (IP) barriers from restricting access to Covid-19 health technologies and to ensure all health systems are equipped with the tools they need to end this pandemic. 

The waiver would help build our national manufacturing capacity, this would be key in addressing the supply shortages and bottlenecks that’s currently holding back our vaccination programme. This advanced manufacturing capacity would also help address the EU’s concerns on ensuring adequate vaccine coverage for their citizens.

Removing IP barriers will also help ensure that the NHS can best support the increasing number of critically ill Covid-19 patients. Last year, a potential Covid-19 treatment was rationed by the NHS to inadequate supply. With the waiver in place, it’ll expand the number of actors who can produce these drugs and help put a stop on any future treatment rationing.

With the continuing emergence of new Covid-19 variants that could be resistant to vaccines, this waiver is of heightened importance. Leaving vast swathes of the world unprotected will allow the virus to continue to mutate and render the vaccines, tests and treatments of today potentially useless tomorrow.

We must support initiatives that will both expand access to these tools and remove barriers for the necessary collaboration and sharing of data among governments and researchers. The IP waiver could play a critical role in allowing for the needed development of effective vaccines, and other tools, to respond to these new strains.

A central reason for the governments opposition to the waiver is their belief that intellectual property rights have been the key enabler in mobilising research and development into Covid-19 health products. But it was not the pharmaceutical companies who made key breakthroughs in vaccine development or treatments, it was universities and publicly funded research institutions supported by huge amounts of public funding as well as a collective effort from the public to support clinical trials. The 93 Billion Euros​ ​of public funding​ ​invested into ​Covid-19 tools over the last 11 months has provided substantial de-risking to attract private sector companies to develop vaccines and therapies. 

The UK government needs to recognise that the IP waiver on Covid-19 technologies is the moral and strategic path to pursue. Rather than being forced to rely on philanthropic initiatives and empty promises that rich countries may donate their vaccine leftovers, it will give autonomy and power to lower income countries to strengthen their domestic pharmaceutical manufacturing industries.

Not only could the waiver be a game changer for the medium-term response to Covid-19, it would also better prepare countries for future pandemics through removing barriers that limit regional collaboration and in-country vaccine manufacturing. 

The UK reaching the bleak milestone of 100,000 deaths to Covid-19 should be a wake-up call for the government to do everything in its power to expand vaccine manufacturing and advance future pandemic preparedness. 

On Thursday WTO members are meeting again to discuss whether to adopt the landmark IP waiver proposal. Let’s hope the government sees past Big Pharma spin and stands on the right side of history.


Clive Lewis is the Labour MP for Norwich South.

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Read the most recent article written by Clive Lewis MP - My Labour Manifesto: Climate crisis, wellbeing and tackling the democratic deficit


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