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  • Raghav Sand

Covid-19 Vaccination: Status, Strategy and the Patent Waiver Debate

The Covid-19 virus is stubborn. Its socio-economic impact will be felt in the coming years if not decades. Scientists and medical personnel have been toiling hard to get us out of trouble, but new mutations of the virus along with insufficient medical infrastructure and supply chain constraints are playing spoilsport. Progress has been made on ground, but the enormity of the problem makes us feel otherwise. For the common person, some of the comments made by some ill-informed politicians, incompetent public health officials and over enthusiastic doomsday advocates make matters even worse.

Vaccination is not a cure; it is a defence mechanism. No vaccine has ever been able to achieve complete effectiveness against the pathogen it aims to neutralise. Every country capable of developing and manufacturing the vaccine for Covid-19 has in one way or the other looked inward and prioritized self-sufficiency. This trend has been seen with both the final vaccine doses and the raw material required for making the vaccine. After all, elections are not won by inoculating the world.

All Hail the Highest Bidder

If we keep the politics aside for a moment, the world was anyways going to falter on the allocation of resources. We live a world which sells the resources to the highest bidder or the facilitator. Big pharmaceutical companies are based in North America and Western Europe for a reason. Germany, United States of America (U.S.A), United Kingdom, France and Canada are home to some of the biggest pharma companies. Health and well-being industry is largely a for-profit enterprise. Whether it is the individual, insurance company or a universal health access scheme financed by taxpayer money, pharma companies get paid (and well), irrespectively.

By the end of May, 85 per cent of vaccine was administered in high and upper-middle income group countries. These countries signed contracts with big pharma for preferential delivery of vaccine. Pharma companies were happy to comply with the demands of these vaccine hoarding nations, which even paid a hefty advance. All the talk around the ‘right thing to do’ is just for seminars and symbolic sympathy.

Western nations never miss an opportunity to gain an upper hand in negotiations. They like to create an artificial scarcity of essential raw materials and then ‘donate’ or ration them as an orchestrated goodwill gesture. Being nationalistic is seen as a sign of right-wing ideology. Name one nation not prioritizing nationalism? (Hint: none) When every other nation is serving its own interest, looking for consensus and cooperation may be seen as a sign of weakness. As people are losing loved ones and personal finances are on a downward slope, global leaders had an opportunity to display much needed statesmanship; sadly, they chose to look the other way.

Big Pharma: Profits Before People

Big pharma companies are despised for a reason. Every health crisis erodes their credibility. After all the malpractices followed by them in development, pricing and allocation of medicines, we still don’t have a mechanism to hold them accountable. As per the World Health Organization, the current market driven model of pharma companies does not work with unexpected pathogens like the Covid-19. And, as most of you may have read it more than once, we will have many more pandemics in the future because of global warming and presence of animals in human food chain.

The apathy of big pharma can be seen from how they contribute towards funding for neglected diseases such as ulcer and dengue fever. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, 64 percent of taxpayer money was used to fund research for neglected diseases. Philanthropic funds contributed 19 percent, while the remaining 17 percent i.e., $650 million came from the coffers of big pharma. In that same period, the annual revenue of top 20 pharma companies was $661 billion. By contributing less than one percent of their annual revenue, big pharma once again showed their true colours.

Vaccine Patent: To Waive or Not to Waive

Developing countries like India and South Africa are advocating for a patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines. Indian External Affairs Minister, Dr S Jaisahankar, travelled to U.S.A. recently. Among other things, he had Covid-19 vaccination on his mind. Vaccine production in India slowed down in the month of March and April due to supply chain issues. Simply put, some of the raw material which is procured from U.S.A. was held back as buffer for domestic consumption. President Joe Biden has come out in support of a patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccine, but countries like Germany and France are playing hardball.

The patent waiver debate has strong arguments from both sides of the aisle. Those in support of a waiver argue that, now is not the best time to profit from greed, while the sceptics believe it is “the wrong tool for the right goal”. In all this chaos, do the pharma companies even want the virus to go away any time soon? Cash cows are hard to come by, and for a sector like pharma which is among the laggards in ethics and morality rankings, nothing can be ruled out at the outset.

Cocktail Vaccination!?

Researchers are making an all-out effort to stay ahead of the curve by studying the impact of administering different vaccines in the first and second dose. By doing so they believe we can generate wider antibodies and develop a better immune response. This approach is also seen as a hedge against any supply mismatch between first and second dose of a particular vaccine variant. Research participants have reported temporary side-effects like mild fever and body ache, but the risk-benefit ratio seems to outweigh the risks posed by different known and yet to be discovered variants of the Covid-19 virus.

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