Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP

Member of Parliament for Streatham (and parts of Balham, Clapham Common, Tulse Hill and Brixton Hill)
Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Clapham & Brixton Hill

Set the vaccine patents free

May 21, 2021 | Articles

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Trickle-down vaccination won’t get us out of the pandemic. We must suspend the COVID-19 vaccine patents.

Vaccine patents

Last week, the UN published a report which concluded that “the situation we find ourselves in today could have been prevented… It is due to a myriad of failures, gaps and delays in preparedness and response.” At the root of these issues has been a systemic inability to recognise that nobody is safe until everyone is and the best economic response to the pandemic was always a public health response to safeguard human life.

Nothing better sums this up than the international failure to get the world vaccinated. What we needed was an internationally coordinated response to prioritise the vulnerable and prevent healthcare systems being overwhelmed. What we got was wealthy nations using their purchasing power to secure enough doses to vaccinate their populations several times over, at the expense of poorer nations.

Just 0.3% of the supply has gone to the low-income countries who have the greatest need to vaccinate their vulnerable. Vaccines are not expected to be available in some countries until late 2023. Meanwhile, the UK alone has already secured 457 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, almost 5% of the projected global supply for 2021 and enough to fully vaccinate our entire population three times over. The Government’s contribution to the WHO’s Covax programme is a widow’s mite when our own rollout is predicated on such blatant vaccine hoarding.

In the current context of trickle-down vaccination, rich countries like the UK are not just sitting on huge quantities of current supply, they’re also standing in the way of creating more. By suspending the patents for Covid-19 vaccines, we could enable some of the world’s idle factories to start manufacturing them, increase supply, and get them to the people who need them most. Boris Johnson’s consistent refusal to support the international call for a TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) waiver on Covid-19 vaccines is yet another example of the market’s needs being put before before people’s.

Whilst shareholders rake in enormous vaccine profits and hold patents hostage, it’s worth pointing out that Covid-19 vaccines were made possible almost entirely by public money and international scientific cooperation; especially the 97% publicly funded Astra Zeneca vaccine – contrary to Boris Johnson’s bluster. Even more than the billions of pounds of government funding poured into Covid-19 research during the pandemic, it was decades of government-funded research that laid the groundwork for these vaccines. They were funded by all, so they should be free to all.

In spite of this, not a single vaccine patent holder has volunteered to share their technology through the WHO’s Covid Technology Access Pool (C-TAP). There is also increasing evidence that pharmaceutical companies are charging low-income countries over the odds and profiteering.

The fact that we are left begging pharmaceutical companies to share life-saving technology that we paid for is an indictment of the whole system. Not least because it’s actually in the interest of wealthy countries like the UK as much as low-income countries to break the shareholders’ stranglehold on the patents and set the vaccines free.

By helping low-income countries to inoculate their vulnerable populations and frontline workers, we can reduce the chance of their healthcare systems becoming overwhelmed. This won’t just save lives but will also reduce the likelihood of new more virulent strains of the virus emerging, saving lives and removing potential bumps in our roadmap to recovery.

Protecting pharmaceutical monopolies just means protecting the virus’s monopoly over public life. With the Biden administration in the US signalling it will drop its opposition to a life-saving IP waiver, there is now a chance for us to crank up the pressure on our own government.

Just as a candle can light infinite others without diminishing its light, sharing the vaccine patents is a way of spreading life-saving knowledge. We cannot allow pharmaceutical companies or their allies in government to extinguish this hope in pursuit of their own self-interest.

Trickle-down vaccination won’t get us out of the pandemic. In these times of national retrenchment, it’s up to us to light the way and uphold the crucial principles of international solidarity and cooperation. Let’s keep up the pressure to set the vaccines free.

This article was first published on the 20th May on Labour Outlook.