Case for a People’s Vaccine

The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed an unending onslaught on humanity. The world has seen 3.12 million deaths due to the Coronavirus till April 27 and several people have died due to hunger owing to the lockdowns, shutdowns resulting in disastrous economic consequences. The countries are in 2nd, 3rd and 4th waves of COVID-19. The governments have intervened but, in several cases, have been unable to prevent some avoidable deaths in face of the colossal challenge thrown by the pandemic. The vaccine has come as a ray of hope for humanity to save itself from the deadly virus.

Starting from the UK on December 8, 2020, vaccination has been undertaken by several countries like in the US, France, Germany, Russia, India, Cambodia, Pakistan, Rwanda, Senegal, Ghana, Brazil, Peru etc. Vaccines have been procured through domestic production, importing from the producing countries or receiving through aid. According to Bloomberg, more than 1 billion doses of vaccines have been administered in 172 countries till April 25. Currently about 6.8 percent of the global population have been fully vaccinated and the latest per day rate of vaccination is 19.2 million doses per day (Bloomberg). The UK, US, China, US, Germany and Belgium, India, UK and Russia, are some of the major vaccine producing countries.

Inequality in vaccination

The unfortunate aspect however is the inequality in the vaccination. As per Bloomberg, “40% of the vaccines administered have gone to people in 27 wealthy nations having 11% of the global population, whereas countries making up the least wealthy 11% have got 1.6% vaccines. In other words, countries with highest incomes are getting vaccinated 25 times faster than the countries with lowest income”. While the rich countries have pre-ordered a adequate vaccines for themselves, e.g., Canada has ordered 10 times vaccine to its population, the poor countries are struggling to get a bare minimum, e.g., Afghanistan has got only 500,000 vaccines (through bilateral aid from India) against its population of 38 million. Such a trend has evoked the response from the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres who on April 5, 2021 lamented “vaccine nationalism” and reiterated the point that “only together we will defeat COVID-19.”

Apart from vaccine nationalism, another major roadblock for fully rolling out and equitable vaccination is the patenting of the vaccines. Tough the private pharma companies have developed and manufactured the vaccines in most cases, investment came from the government, universities and charities. In other words, public money has been invested in the process. Therefore, the approach of the big pharma companies to “make profit” by cashing in on the misery of people does not stand the ground. Some vaccine companies are in news recently for making good profits as their share values goes up, e.g., BioNTECH, the German firm and Moderna, Massachusetts based firm.

Proposal at WTO for patent waiver

India and South Africa have tabled a proposal at the World Trade Organisation in October 2020 suggesting a temporary waiver of the intellectual and patent rights on COVID vaccines, medical devices and protective kits etc. It has now been supported by more than 100 countries. Unfortunately, however several rich countries e.g., US, UK, Norway, Canada, Australia etc. and Asia economic giants like Japan, Singapore and South Korea are opposing the waiver understandably by coming under the pressure of their Pharma companies. The WTO council formal meeting for TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) is scheduled on 30th April where this proposal would be discussed.

A positive programme, COVAX, initiated by World Health Organisation and other groups before a year aims at ensuring equitable access of vaccines to all 190 participating economies, mainly the poorer countries. Beginning of vaccine delivery to Ghana in February 2021, it has reached 100 countries by April 8. It has however suffered setbacks due to dwindling support from the rich countries and the most recent curbs on exports by India.

Free vaccine for all

In this context, a call for “free vaccine for all, everywhere” has been given by the People’s Vaccine Alliance (PVA), a global alliance of civil societies, health experts, faith leaders, economists and so. PVA demands to treat it as “a people’s vaccine, not a profit vaccine”. It has called for the patent waiver on the vaccines so that the low and middle income countries, those who have the capacity to manufacture the vaccines, can do so for their people once they get the vaccine know-how, technology and other support. Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP), a global civil society campaign is also engaged on the issue supporting the call for a ‘people’s vaccine’. This will not only multiply production but also cover a larger population including the most marginalised, if a proper vaccination framework is in place in the countries. PVA has called on pharmaceutical companies and rich countries to join World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) initiative calling for voluntary sharing of knowledge, intellectual property, data and removing barriers to access raw material to make vaccines and other essential products to fight COVID-19. Adequate steps ought to be taken to make the vaccines affordable for the low and middle income countries to procure them for their people.

Situation in India

India is in an advantageous position as it’s a vaccine producing country. But given its astronomical demography of 1.3 billion, fully vaccinating its people remains a big challenge. As of April 27, a total of 14.52 crore (145.2 million) vaccines have been administered. As the country is in a full-fledged second wave of COVID, the clamour for fast vaccination and to all the adult population began forcing the government to announce the vaccination of people above 18 from May 1. Currently people above forty five could be vaccinated. India is also a major vaccine supplier to other countries through bilateral aid, COVAX mechanism and commercial export. The Ministry of External Affairs website lists 95 countries  whom the vaccines have been exported to under ‘Vaccine Maitri’. Owing to rising domestic need, India has reduced vaccine export. The government has a free vaccination programme in all the government establishments, but a regulated cost for the private hospitals. But with the new framework in place which permits the state governments to procure on their own from domestic producers or by importing from abroad, the pricing regulation is gone. As a result, the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech, two Indian vaccine producers have revised upwards their prices for the state government and the private hospitals. The revised cost will be applicable to the central government eventually. This unregulated system is likely to favour the groups who can afford leaving behind the ones who cannot. Therefore, India should also adopt a framework for free vaccination to all that should proactively include the groups which are likely to be excluded in the process e.g., the refugees, who may not have any identity proof, the person with disabilities, lonely elderly people, people in conflict areas and in geographically inaccessible areas, Dalit and tribal people.

Making COVID vaccine a ‘profit vaccine’ will prolong humanity’s fight against COVID and exclude the vulnerable groups. We have lost unprecedented numbers of precious lives to the virus, let’s wake up and save humanity by a free vaccination programme, for, “no one is safe, till everyone is safe”!