Private companies benefiting from billions in public money and political goodwill stand to profit heavily from selling vaccines to the Global South. Higher income countries, including Canada, Switzerland and the EU states, have even blocked efforts by the World Health Organisation to force companies to release the information needed to make the vaccines freely available to the world, which would have allowed other drug makers to manufacture them.
This refusal of access comes even as states such as the US and the UK hoard vaccine orders far larger than needed for their entire populations. Canada has bought up in advance five times as much vaccine as needed to cover its whole population.
At a fundamental level, vaccine hoarding during a pandemic is morally wrong. Global pandemics demand globalised vaccination efforts. Vulnerable groups and frontline workers across should be vaccinated as a priority, regardless of country. Otherwise catastrophes like those seen in the US or UK will unfold repeatedly, as the virus spreads.
Leaving SARS-CoV-2 to spread unchecked anywhere in the world also increases the risk of new strains emerging, with significant consequences. We’re seeing this already with the more transmissible B117 variant that emerged in the UK, and the new variants from Brazil and South Africa.
The latter two are not only more transmissible, but also show signs that vaccines or antibodies from previous infections may be less effective. Given that these new variants are spreading more easily, they could trigger new pandemics of their own. It’s naive of governments to think that vaccinating a single country can halt the coronavirus.
The Covax initiative, led by the WHO, aims to guarantee fair and equitable access to vaccines for every country in the world. However, it struggled to raise the $2 billion in donations it needed by the end of 2020. In contrast, the the US invested, via Operation Warp Speed, $10 billion across just seven companies.
Covax has now announced 1.3 billion doses for 92 of the poorest nations by the end of 2021, but vaccine access should never have been dependent on the largesse of billionaires and richer nations in the first place.
Instead, scientists and companies should freely release all intellectual property associated with Covid-19 vaccines to maximise production, and commit as a minimum to providing vaccines at cost globally. Otherwise, we’re missing not only a huge opportunity to prevent a resurgent pandemic, but also a chance to revolutionise the way pharmaceutical companies profit off human misery, pandemic or not.