If my mother had been living with me in the US, she likely would have had a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine by early January. But my mother, 81, lives in Brazil – home to the second highest death toll from COVID-19 in the world. She is severely diabetic, socially isolated and her health is slowly declining.
Like many countries that have been left without an adequate supply of COVID-19 vaccines, Brazil only started rolling out immunisation efforts on January 17 with a limited shipment of Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines, which is quickly dwindling.
Despite the anti-vaccination stance of President Bolsonaro, Brazil is one of the very few countries that secured technology transfer and is ready to locally mass manufacture both AstraZeneca’s and Sinovac’s vaccines. However, Brazilian labs only very recently received the active ingredient needed to make these vaccines to begin producing the hundreds of millions of doses the country needs.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, and the situation is dire. In January, Brazil experienced the highest spike in COVID-19 cases with nearly 90,000 positive cases in one single day. To make matters worse, a new variant found in Brazil seems to be more contagious, possibly causing a wave of reinfection in certain regions.
Brazil is not alone in this conundrum. With these strains of COVID-19 also emerging from South Africa and the UK, the WHO just restated that it is more critical than ever to reduce the circulation of the virus and vaccinate high-risk groups everywhere so that we don’t “end up back at square one”.
While some countries plan to vaccinate those most at-risk by the end of February, other countries are facing hiccups as manufacturers are unable to deliver on promised orders. Some other 130 countries, representing 2.5 billion people, have yet to administer a single dose. Even the World Health Organisation’s announcement that its vaccination effort plans to immunise 27% of the population of lower-income countries in 2021 was carefully prefaced with, “if the forecast comes to pass – and that is a big if.”
Clearly, demand will outstrip supply for the foreseeable future and the only way to beat this virus is by stepping up the production of vaccines to ensure that all countries have sufficient doses at hand. The good news is that there are two solutions on the table to make this happen now.
Governments must support a proposal to certain provisions of the TRIPS agreement, a global treaty governing intellectual property rights, which often restricts who, what, where, how and when medicines are produced. This is problematic in the best of times, as these limitations artificially constrain supply, and are increasingly problematic in the midst of a pandemic. While this waiver is not a magic wand that will on its own increase supply and lower costs of COVID-19 vaccines, it can lift the enforcement of patents, for example, which is one of the obstacles stopping additional manufacturers from producing more COVID-19 vaccines.
Even with certain intellectual property rights lifted, manufacturing facilities still need data, raw materials and technology transfer to set the wheels in motion. This is where the WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) could play a key role. As a one-stop shop where companies could share data, know-how, and biological material, C-TAP could facilitate licenses and technology transfer to other manufacturers.
Unfortunately, we are still waiting for governments and companies to get on board with both efforts.
Despite support from many countries, the US and the EU – home to major pharmaceutical companies – have blocked the WTO TRIPS Waiver. While 40 governments have expressed support for C-TAP, these with strong pharmaceutical industries continue to remain silent, namely France, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and the US. Perhaps even more importantly, not one company has joined C-TAP so far, despite human rights responsibility to ensure the maximum number of people can access medicines.
None of these ideas are new. When the world faced a similar situation at a much smaller scale, the UN-backed Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) facilitated the production of 9.59 billion doses of generic drugs for several diseases, which translated into 38.75 million 'patient-years' of treatment since 2012. How many lives could we save now, if only we could do the same for COVID-19 vaccines?
Exactly a year ago, I was planning my mother’s move closer to me to a senior living facility in the US to get the care she needed. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and our plans were put on hold indefinitely. But my mother is not alone in her story. Millions of other people like her await their vaccine under challenging circumstances, and everyday counts.
It’s time for pharmaceutical companies to fulfil their human rights responsibilities, which is why Amnesty International is campaigning for companies, including AstraZeneca, Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna, to share their knowledge and technology so that everyone in the world will have a fair shot at a vaccine.
As we near the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot stand by and watch this unfold when we have a wealth of solutions on the table. Amid governments’ race to vaccinate their own populations entirely first and the pharmaceutical industry’s tight grip on its patents, we’re forgetting that people are at stake. It’s our grandparents, our parents, our siblings, our friends. In my case, it’s my mother.
Tamaryn Nelson is health advisor for Amnesty International