As Rich Countries Hoard Vaccines, India Might Be the Developing World’s Only Hope


As Rich Countries Hoard Vaccines, India Might Be the Developing World’s Only Hope

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

There’s a fierce battle going on right now. It’s not between panelists from India and Pakistan on a news channel. It’s not between Diljit Dosanjh and Kangana Ranaut. Nor is it between “anti-nationals” and pro-government voices on social media. The fight is between rich countries versus the poor, as “vaccine nationalism” takes center stage.

The People’s Vaccine Alliance has stated that rich countries with 14 per cent of the world’s population have already secured 53 per cent of the leading vaccines rolled out. Canada has bought enough doses to vaccinate every citizen five times. In contrast, nearly 70 lower-income countries will only be able to vaccinate one in 10 people. Of the approximately 12 billion doses that the pharma industry is expected to produce next year, over nine billion doses have been reserved by rich countries. According to a study, poor countries may not have access to a Covid-19 vaccine until 2022.

Supplies of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine will almost all go to rich countries, 96 per cent doses have been bought by the West. Manufacturers of the AstraZeneca vaccine have said 64 per cent of doses will go to people in the developing world. While that is admirable, one vaccine cannot bear the burden of billions and every possible vaccine will have to be made available in all regions. The campaigners want Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers to share their technology and intellectual property through the World Health Organization Covid-19 Technology Access Pool. That brings us to the fight playing out between rich and poor countries at the World Trade Organisation.

India and South Africa have proposed temporary waiver of intellectual property obligations to facilitate a more coordinated fight against the coronavirus pandemic. They argue that removing barriers will help make medical products, vaccines and medicines affordable for the developing world. India is a big player when it comes to vaccine manufacturing and could provide cost-effective vaccines for the developing world, especially Africa. Reports claim that the proposal has the backing of almost three-fourth of the WTO membership, mostly developing nations. However, the rich don’t agree.

Should money be a factor in deciding whether people will make it through the pandemic?

At an informal meeting of the TRIPS council in November, the US, the EU, Japan, Canada and Switzerland opposed the proposal. Rich countries have invested billions in research and development, often through taxpayer money, and don’t want the spoils to be freely available to all. It has also been argued that waiver of intellectual rights would hamper further research and development efforts to fight the pandemic. Simply put, rich countries have placed the interest of their big pharmaceutical companies, over the lives of people in the developing world.

Should money be a factor in deciding whether people will make it through the pandemic? Don’t people in Pakistan or Botswana have the same right to life as someone from Germany or Canada? Is this the time for governments across the world to further the interests of pharma companies and gun for domestic profits? If developing countries like India can manufacture vaccines at a scale and cost that the Western world cannot, and it can potentially save millions of lives in poor countries, shouldn’t barriers to it be temporarily suspended? Is the primary concern right now the safety of people, or the bottomline of a Fortune 500 company?

There is a popular Dave Chappelle meme doing the rounds on the internet that says “modern problems require modern solutions”. Let me propose a slight twist to that: “Global problems require global solutions.”