Author Jonathan Shaffer is a co-founder of Right to Health Action and a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Boston University.
President Biden’s aggressive new timetable for the sprint to full vaccine availability — his target for crossing the finish line is May 1 — is welcome news for Americans. But it obscures the fact that to truly protect people living in the United States, it’s essential to get shots into the arms of every person on the planet.
During the second week of March, the world had a chance to engage in multilateral collaboration to share the vaccine technology necessary to reach global herd immunity. At a general meeting of the World Trade Organization, South Africa and India proposed a waiver of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement (TRIPS). That waiver would have temporarily suspended certain vaccine technology patent monopoly protections during the Covid-19 crisis and enabled access to the “recipe” and manufacturing protocols for effective vaccines to be shared with producers around the world.
But it was sabotaged by trade representatives from the U.S., the United Kingdom, and other wealthy countries in the Global North who argued that current intellectual property rights were crucial to maintaining a innovation in the drug-development market.
Following the WTO’s failure to act, Biden’s best option to lead the world toward equitable vaccine access is by using his executive powers to extricate the Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson vaccine patents from the grip of stifling monopolies and license the Covid-19 vaccine technology to the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool, which would enable a rapid scale-up of generic vaccine manufacturing worldwide.
This would give Biden a chance for a rare triple win: Licensing Covid-19 vaccine technologies to the pool would be a major victory for global social justice, a win for the self-interested American public, and a foreign policy victory for world order and stability.
Vaccine apartheid is an apt description of the injustice built into the current and persistent inequalities in vaccine access. The map of current Covid-19 vaccine access overlays neatly onto much older maps of colonial conquest.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report concluded that, “without redistribution of doses already purchased by high-income countries (through donations or other means) and/or increased support for manufacturing or production of additional doses, more than four in ten (41%) adults in the world will not be able to be vaccinated …”
Patent protections for pharmaceutical companies like the Pfizer/BioNTech team, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — whose Covid-19 vaccine development efforts were almost entirely funded by the U.S. and German governments — create unnecessary vaccine scarcity. By hoarding scarce vaccines, the U.S. and other Global North countries all but ensure continued concentration of Covid-19 risk, infection, and death among the most impoverished people in the world.
While the U.S. has committed to charitably contributing $4 billion to the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program, which is funding vaccine distribution in the world’s poorest nations, and has given doses to Mexico and Canada, these efforts are a drop in the bucket of what is needed. The best-case scenarios put COVAX at being able to supply only about 20% of the vaccines needed to cover the world’s vulnerable populations.
The current arrangement is not simply unjust for the global poor, it is also self-defeating for the wealthy, vaccinated world. By restricting the flow of Covid-19 vaccines, rich countries in the Global North are allowing SARS-CoV-2 to circulate unchecked in poor countries and driving the conditions that accelerate the number of new Covid-19 viral mutations. These variants may be more contagious, more deadly, have the ability to reinfect Covid-19 survivors, and/or be resistant to the vaccines that are currently available. It’s likely just a matter of time before these new variants become dominant in the U.S., undercutting existing protective immunity and dashing the Biden administration’s hopes for a speedy end to this grim chapter in our history. Ensuring that the world gets vaccinated is also a self-interested matter of safeguarding the hard-won protections of the already-vaccinated.
The world is beginning to see the political instability engendered by chronic, unchecked Covid-19 transmission. The U.S. is battling crises on all fronts, domestic and international. Accelerating global access to vaccines by licensing existing vaccines to the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool would be an essential and relatively easy win that builds on Biden’s own existing commitment to restoring global cooperation.
Brazil’s Covid-19 havoc, ensuing economic collapse, political denialism, and rising instability foreshadows a possible future in which ongoing economic stagnation, mass death, and political dysfunction accelerate global disorder. Biden should listen to people in his own administration, including Anthony Fauci, his chief medical adviser on the pandemic, who recently answered “Yes, yes, and yes” when asked whether the U.S. should join the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool.
Biden has repeatedly argued that the U.S. must regain its role as a global leader for justice and stability, and that internationally engaged leadership is the best way to keep Americans safe and prosperous. By licensing available vaccine technologies (which were largely financed by American taxpayers) to the pool, the Biden administration would immediately unlock untapped global vaccine production capacity.
With multilateral efforts through the WTO now off the table, the president should use the emergency powers granted to him to bring American leadership once again to the world stage and at the same time avert catastrophe, promote justice, and protect the American people.