KRWG

What Will It Take To End The COVID-19 Pandemic?

Jan 5, 2021
Originally published on January 5, 2021 3:38 pm

Here in the U.S., communities see a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. With the vaccinations now occurring across the country, health officials are optimistic that the outbreak could be under control by the end of this year.

But the pandemic won't be over. Across the globe, the virus will still be circulating widely, even surging, in many countries.

Health experts agree that, to end the pandemic, the world needs to immunize a large percentage of Earth's population. And that population needs to be distributed evenly, not clustered in wealthy countries. Otherwise, we'll end up in the situation in which COVID-19 becomes a disease of the poor – that is, the virus is largely under control in rich countries but still circulating in many poor countries, says Niko Lusiani, who's a senior adviser with charity organization Oxfam.

"We don't want to sit in an island in the world where rich countries are fully immunized, while the rest of the world is dying from COVID," he says. "That's just not a morally convenient place to be for most people."

About 7 billion people live on the planet. Many of the new COVID-19 vaccines require two doses. So to stamp out the pandemic, companies need to manufacture about 12 to 15 billion doses.

Problem is, right now, the world doesn't have near that many doses and likely won't have them this year, Lusiani says. "In many pockets around the world, it's becoming increasingly likely that people will not get access to the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021."

Many families will have to wait until 2023 or 2024. And the pandemic will likely continue until then.

So why can't the world simply manufacture more doses? Lawyer Brook Baker at Northeastern University believes there's an underlying root cause: international patents on COVID-19 vaccines.

"The [vaccine] innovators hold patent rights and trade secret rights over those technologies, and they're unwilling to share them broadly to other manufacturers. So we have artificially constricted supply," says Baker, who studies how laws affect access to medicines.

The patent rights come from agreements within the World Trade Organization. Members of the WTO, which includes 159 countries, have agreed to honor patents for new pharmaceutical products at least 20 years after they're developed.

"This agreement was the brainchild of the pharmaceutical industry back in the 1980s," Baker says. "It ended up being a monopoly-based agreement, which preserves the rights of the pharmaceutical industry instead of allowing competition."

These patent laws, Baker says, have landed the world in a thorny situation, in which a handful of pharmaceutical companies have enormous power and control over a life-saving vaccine. These companies, in many ways, decide which countries get the vaccine this year — and can possibly end their outbreak — and which ones are left fighting COVID-19 with only masks and physical distancing, Baker says.

"That's no way to respond to a pandemic emergency. It's actually not a very good way to respond to the need for medicines in general," he says.

Many leaders of lower-income countries agree with Baker. Back in October, India and South Africa asked the WTO for a waiver — to lift the patent restrictions on COVID vaccines and medicines until the pandemic is over.

But many rich countries, including the U.S., Canada, Japan and Norway, have blocked the waiver, saying there's no evidence that patent protection is inhibiting access to COVID vaccines.

"A temporary waiver would have zero impact on the COVID-19 pandemic. You wouldn't have a single vaccine more available now for COVID-19," says Thomas Cueni, director general of International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers in Geneva.

Cueni says the problem isn't patents but rather that the world just doesn't have the manufacturing capacity to make enough doses for everyone this year. "When you look at global vaccine manufacturing capacity, both India and South Africa among the 10 largest vaccine manufacturers in the world," he says. And there is "no idle capacity"

A big reason for this maxed out capacity is that some vaccine developers, such as AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, are already sharing their patent recipes with a few large manufacturers in India, South Africa and Brazil.

These special agreements ensure that at least some people in poor countries, up to about 20 percent, will likely receive the vaccine this years, says Andrea Taylor at Duke Global Health Institute.

"Patent sharing is definitely good, and we have seen manufacturing capacity really open up, in Southeast Asia and Latin America. So that's really encouraging," she says. "But I'd like to see more [vaccine manufacturing] capacity open up in sub-Saharan Africa."

In addition, many researchers and activists point out that manufacturing isn't the only aspect of vaccine distribution that patents can block. In the past, with other diseases, patents have delayed the delivery of vaccines and kept prices so high that they're unaffordable for many countries.

Because, lawyer Brook Baker says, the same patent rights that allow companies to keep their vaccine recipes a secret also allow them to charge much more than the actual cost of a vaccine since no one knows the true cost.

"That means, companies can charge whatever they want while controlling the supply," Baker says, despite the fact that the U.S. taxpayers have already paid for part of the development and manufacture of these vaccines. "The U.S. government has de-risked the product development," Baker says. "It paid for clinical trials. It expedited the regulatory process, and it has invested in and expanded manufacturing capacity.

"I don't want to sound facetious, but what has the private industry done that's so critical that they get monopolies?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Drug companies have created an effective vaccine for a new disease in record time. But for many people around the world, the wait for a COVID-19 vaccine could take years. What will it take to end the pandemic as a whole? NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: As rich countries start to vaccinate their populations widely, the world runs the risk of turning COVID-19 into a disease of the poor, with the coronavirus still circulating in low-income countries but not in rich ones. That's according to Niko Lusiani. He's a senior adviser with the global aid organization Oxfam.

NIKO LUSIANI: We don't want to sit in an island in the world where a couple of rich countries are fully immunized where the rest of the world is dying from COVID. I mean, that's just not a morally convenient place to be for most people.

DOUCLEFF: To end the pandemic, the world needs about 12 to 15 billion doses of vaccine - about two per person. Right now there just aren't that many doses and likely won't be this year.

LUSIANI: When it comes to many pockets around the world, it's becoming increasingly unlikely that people will get access to this vaccine in 2021.

DOUCLEFF: Many people will have to wait until 2023 or 2024. Brook Baker is a law professor at Northeastern University. He studies how laws affect access to medicines. He says this unequal access to the vaccine has a root cause - international patents.

BROOK BAKER: The innovators hold patent rights and trade secret rights over those technologies, and they're unwilling to share them broadly to other manufacturers. So we have artificially constricted supply.

DOUCLEFF: The patent rights come from agreements within the World Trade Organization. Countries have agreed to honor patents for new pharmaceutical products 20 years after they're developed.

BAKER: This was the brainchild of the pharmaceutical industry back in the 1980s that ended up being a monopoly-based agreement, where instead of competition, we preserved the rights of the pharmaceutical industry.

DOUCLEFF: Baker says these patent laws have landed the world in the situation we have now, where a handful of companies have enormous power and control over a lifesaving vaccine. Baker says these companies, in many ways, decide which countries get the vaccine this year and can possibly end their outbreak and which ones are left fighting COVID-19 with only masks and social distancing.

BAKER: That's no way to respond to a pandemic emergency. It's actually not a very good way to respond to the need for medicines in general.

DOUCLEFF: Many leaders of developing countries agree with Baker. Back in October, India and South Africa asked the WTO for a waiver to lift the patent restrictions on COVID vaccines and medicines until the pandemic is over. But many rich countries - including the U.S., Japan, Norway and Canada - have blocked the waiver, saying there's no evidence that patent protection is inhibiting access to COVID vaccines.

Thomas Cueni directs the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations. It's the leading trade association for brand-name drugmakers.

THOMAS CUENI: The temporary waiver would have zero impact on the pandemic. You wouldn't have a single vaccine more available now for COVID-19.

DOUCLEFF: He says the problem isn't patents, but rather the world just doesn't have the capacity to make enough doses for everyone this year.

CUENI: And you look at global vaccine manufacturing capacity, both India and South Africa among the 10 largest vaccine manufacturers in the world. There is no idle capacity.

DOUCLEFF: A big reason for this maxed-out capacity is that some of the companies that are developing vaccines, such as AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, are sharing their patent recipes with a few other manufacturers.

Andrea Taylor is at Duke University. She's been closely tracking these agreements. She says they are helping to ensure that at least some people in poor countries, up to 20%, receive the vaccine this year.

ANDREA TAYLOR: It is definitely good, yeah. We have seen quite a bit open up in terms of manufacturing capacity in Southeast Asia as well as Latin America. So that is really encouraging.

DOUCLEFF: She says the world needs more patent sharing and increased manufacturing capacity.

Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.