Fri | Jan 28, 2022

Letter of the Day | COVID-19 vaccine patents will kill Jamaicans

Published:Monday | April 26, 2021 | 12:07 AM


We are living in a world of the haves and have-nots, and it is a test of life and death. Vaccines, despite the risks in a very small number of jab recipients, are the surest way to protect against contracting COVID-19 in the short term. To date, 83 per cent of the jabs have gone to individuals in middle to higher income countries. Many of the poorer countries, like those in the CARICOM region, might have to wait years to receive an adequate supply of vaccines to achieve a level of herd immunity and safety.

While a handful of vaccine manufacturers literally control the destiny of billions of lives, the situation at hand is for the manufacturers to put short-term profits aside, and put saving every human life possible to the forefront. Certain parties are already petitioning the World Trade Organization (WTO) to pressure the vaccine manufacturers to set aside their intellectual property rights and let poorer countries manufacture the vaccine for local consumption. India and South Africa are good examples. They have the ability to manufacture the vaccine and distribute it on a regional basis. Why can’t one manufacturer, based in the CARICOM region – even Puerto Rica, once a key pharma research location – manufacture and distribute the vaccine?

To date, only 0.2 per cent of the vaccines have been administered in lower-income countries, which includes Jamaica. The vaccine manufacturers are primarily servicing the countries in which they are based: the US, UK and the EU. Even in EU countries, the vaccine roll-out has been problematic. Until they sort out their own mess, contributions to COVAX will suffer.

Put the profit incentive for manufacturers where it belongs: on innovation, not distribution. Pharma companies have traditionally expended massive amounts of capital in research and development, hoping to recover that investment in manufacturing and distribution; hence the patent-protection process. The answer to address the needs of poorer countries during the pandemic with COVID-19 vaccine development is to turn that incentive around: the government should pay massive fees and success bonuses up front for research and development, and then compel those manufacturers to license their intellectual property on much broader and lower-cost basis.

Is it too late to do this? We’ve already witnessed, over the past five months, the virus metastasising: a UK variant, one from Africa, and more to come. Viruses evolve to survive and spread. Whatever variant of COVID-19 we will have in the future, vaccine development will have to stay at least one year ahead. In the meantime, the developed and affluent nations need to open up ways to get vaccines to countries less fortunate. Stay safe, and mask up.


Author and Political Adviser

Charleston, South Carolina