More than 11 billion COVID-19 shots have been administered worldwide, the biggest vaccination campaign in history. More than five billion people — over 66 percent of the global population — have received at least one dose.
Yet despite this extraordinary achievement, there remains work to be done. Global vaccination rates are uneven. While a couple dozen countries have fully inoculated more than 80 percent of their people, others lag.
We need to close that gap, both as a humanitarian concern and because inequity threatens our collective health, straining global health systems.
Unfortunately, in their haste to find solutions, some governments are pursuing strategies that will do more harm than good. Even worse, one of those governments is our own.
Reportedly, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative just embraced a draft agreement with the European Union, India, and South Africa to waive commitment to protect intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines. The deal would allow companies in developing countries to copy vaccine formulas and processes without the patent holder’s consent, flouting longstanding global trade rules.
If approved, this deal would distract from the real challenges facing the global vaccination campaign, and harm our future ability to fight disease — including the next pandemic.
Proponents of the IP waiver seem to still believe that vaccine inequity is being caused by inadequate supply. That may have been a legitimate fear early in the pandemic, before we knew how vaccine development and manufacturing would pan out.
But now we know that supply isn’t a problem. Drugmakers have the capacity to produce more than 20 billion vaccine doses this year — more than enough to inoculate every person on the planet.
Today, manufacturers are being asked to hold off on delivery of new doses.
The real challenges to vaccinating the world against COVID-19 are two-fold.
First, vaccine hesitancy is a problem worldwide, just as it has been in the United States. Sometimes it’s due to skepticism or misinformation about safety and effectiveness, and at other times, a dearth of time and energy amid busy, challenging lives.
Second, infrastructure and logistics problems have plagued many vaccination campaigns. Depending on the location, these may include a lack of transportation, refrigerated storage, reliable electricity, or health care staff.
Addressing these knotty problems will require significant investments in public health infrastructure as well as outreach campaigns.
Stripping IP protections from drug developers threatens the medical innovation pipeline that brought us several safe, highly effective COVID-19 vaccines in less than a year. Patent rights grant inventors a set period of time during which they have the exclusive right to make and sell their creations. That keeps investment flowing and the innovations coming across all tech-based sectors of the economy. Without legal protections, that investment will dry up, and we’ll lose out on the treatments and vaccines of tomorrow.
We’ve made remarkable progress in our efforts to vaccinate the world. But to end the pandemic, we must focus on objectives that will have a meaningful impact on vaccine inequity. Waiving IP rights will only distract us from closing the global vaccine gap.