Thu | Dec 9, 2021

Editorial | Joe Biden’s moral test

Published:Sunday | April 25, 2021 | 12:30 AM

When Joe Biden declares that “America is back”, he offers as proof an end to the hectoring of partners in NATO, Washington’s return to the Paris climate agreement, its rejoining of the World Health Organization (WHO) and, among others, a generally more embracing attitude to multiculturalism . There is the fact, too, that he isn’t Donald Trump. The implication is that this is a more globally caring USA, rather than an inward-looking United States of the Trump era.

But the lasting measure of how well Mr Biden redeemed America’s soul and set himself, and his country, on the right side of history, will depend, to a large extent, on how he responds to the world’s most vulnerable nations when faced with the existential crisis of the times – the COVID-19 pandemic. Or, more to the point, the test is whether Mr Biden has the will to defy the narrow interests of America’s pharmaceutical industry and their lobbyists, and cause the waiving of intellectual property (IP) rights to vaccines developed by US companies. Concomitantly, the US president to lift the bank on the export of ingredients necessary for the manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines.

The intention of the actions is for the quick and cheap production of vaccines to reach billions of people in the developing countries who are at peril from the pandemic. In that regard, Mr Biden should accept the suggestions made in the recent open letter by more than 100 Nobel laureates and heads of state and governments, including the former Jamaican prime minister, P.J. Patterson.

In the 15 months since the emergence of COVID-19, more than 150 million people have contracted coronavirus. Over three million have died. Countries’ economies have been battered, with heavy human costs. Global recovery rests largely on a raft of vaccines, which scientists, building on earlier research, developed at record speed.

UNEVEN ROLL OUT

Unfortunately, the roll-out of these vaccines is uneven, vastly skewed to the rich countries of the West, which have effectively captured the market for the drugs. For instance, by last weekend, the United States had injected nearly 219 million doses of vaccines in people’s arms. Twenty-seven per cent of the population was fully vaccinated, and 41 per cent partially so. In Britain, more than 43.9 million people had received the jab, with 50 per cent and 16 per cent, respectively, being partially or fully vaccinated.

Jamaica, on the other hand, has so far delivered only the first dose of the two-dose AstraZeneca vaccine to 135,473 people, or under five per cent of the population. That isn’t because the country doesn’t want to go faster, or because there isn’t the money to pay for the drugs. Jamaica just can’t buy any. “Commercial sources of vaccine are just not available,” said Howard Mitchell, the chairman of the Government’s National Health Fund (NHF), which coordinates Jamaica’s purchases of vaccines.

Part of the problem for poor and middle-income countries like Jamaica – which had hoped to vaccinate two-thirds of its population by March 2022 – is that India, faced with a sharp spiral in COVID-19 cases, has banned the export of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced in that country. With around 16 per cent of the world’s population, the rich, developed countries pre-bought sufficient vaccines to fully vaccinate all their citizens more than twice. By most estimates, they will, in the end, have more than a billion doses left over. The “excess doses alone … are sufficient to vaccinate the entire adult population of Africa”, said the group One’s Policy, in a report on vaccine inequality.

On the other hand, the United Nations-backed COVAX initiative, which is aimed at delivering vaccines to poor countries, has orders for two billion doses for delivery by year end, sufficient to inoculate 20 per cent of the populations of the counties in the scheme.

TEMPORARILY WAIVE IP RULES

It is against this backdrop, with many countries facing the prospect of not having a single dose of vaccine this year, that the Nobel laureates and formers heads of state and government told Mr Biden that the US should agree to the idea (initially proposed by India and South Africa, and now backed by many countries) temporarily waiving World Trade Organization (WTO) rules on intellectual property with respect of the vaccines. This would allow the producers of generic drugs around the world to ramp up production to meet global demand.

Said the group of eminent persons: “A WTO waiver is a vital and necessary step to bringing an end to this pandemic. It must be combined with ensuring vaccine know-how and technology is shared openly. This can be achieved through the World Health Organization COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, as your Chief Medical Advisor, Dr Anthony Fauci, has called for. This will save lives and advance us towards global herd immunity.

“These actions would expand global manufacturing capacity, unhindered by industry monopolies that are driving the dire supply shortages blocking vaccine access. Nine in 10 people in most poor countries may well go without a vaccine this year. At this pace, many nations will be left waiting until at least 2024 to achieve mass COVID-19 immunisation, despite what the limited, while welcome, COVAX initiative is able to offer.”

Some American critics have cast the proposal as a way for Indian and other manufacturers of generic drugs to muscle in on other people’s intellectual property, with potentially chilling effects on future research and development. Yet, much of the R&D for the vaccines was financed with taxpayers’ money.

In any event, the economic recovery of rich countries and the good health of their populations isn’t sustainable if the health of citizens of poor and middle-income ones is compromised. Or, as the Nobel laureates and former leaders put it: “Were the virus left to roam the world, and even if vaccinated, people in the US would continue to be exposed to new viral variants.”

The pandemic, and the matter of waiver of the IP rights to the vaccines, will be a test of Joe Biden’s commitment to multilateralism and partnership, or if there is a disjuncture between words and deeds.