On 5 May, Katherine Tai, the United States Trade Representative, announced that the US would support waiving intellectual-property protections for COVID-19 vaccines. This was a significant breakthrough for negotiations at the World Trade Organisation, where developing countries led by India and South Africa have pushed for relaxations of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, rules for all COVID-19 technologies to improve access to them. After the US, the European Union, New Zealand and Canada have said they will consider the proposal. However, the extent of support from these countries for such a waiver will come down to the fine print of any agreement reached at the WTO. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is a major funder for many global public-health and vaccine organisations with an outsize influence on global health policy, said it would support only a “narrow waiver” on COVID-19 vaccines.
While these talks have been on, COVID-19 vaccines have been unequally distributed around the world. Rich countries signed agreements to buy up the bulk when vaccines were still being developed. Many players are involved in the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines—countries and their governments; research institutions such as Oxford University; and pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Moderna, Novavax and the Serum Institute of India. Global alliances have also been participating in the process, such as GAVI, which is a global alliance facilitating vaccine production and distribution, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations or CEPI, and COVAX, an alliance specifically to coordinate distribution of COVID-19 vaccines that is led by GAVI ad CEPI. The Gates Foundation helped set up both GAVI and CEPI, and had contributed to funding COVAX.
On 4 May, Nileena MS, reporting fellow at The Caravan, spoke to Mohga Kamal-Yanni about the global politics behind vaccine distribution. Kamal-Yanni is a senior policy and technical advisor to UNAIDS and a global-health-policy advisor at The People’s Vaccine, a group of organisations campaigning for vaccine equity. She has worked for forty years in the field of access to medicines and healthcare. According to Kamal-Yanni, the players involved in vaccine development have themselves resisted mechanisms to ensure fair vaccine distribution. She detailed the many hurdles to equitable vaccine distribution, the main one being pressure from pharmaceutical companies.
Mohga Kamal-Yanni: There are two reasons. First, from last year when universities and pharmaceutical companies started to research vaccines, it was clear that the majority of the population in the world must be vaccinated to reach herd immunity. That means, anybody could have calculated how many doses are needed and even if all the vaccines in the clinical trial succeeded, those companies would not be able to produce all these billions of doses that are needed. A simple calculation would have told you that. The world leaders should have thought about how to produce these many doses, allocate and distribute them. That did not happen.