More than 5.2 million people around the world were diagnosed with COVID-19 infections during the week ending April 17, higher than any other week since the start of the pandemic one year ago. The majority of infections are found in poor, developing nations ill-equipped to effectively treat those who’ve contracted this dangerous virus. This surge in infections comes as the world surpassed 3 million deaths attributed to the coronavirus.
Although many western nations are making progress in distributing vaccinations to their populations, data finding a 12 percent increase in COVID infections from a week earlier is a wake-up call that the end of the pandemic for much of the world is not yet clearly in sight.
Sixty-six global health, development and humanitarian organizations are calling on President Biden to implement a global vaccine manufacturing program to end the COVID-19 pandemic and build a globally distributed vaccine infrastructure to address inevitable future pandemics. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program, who explains why his and dozens of other groups are urging President Biden to support the global vaccine manufacturing initiative to waive pharmaceutical company patents to bring billions of additional vaccine doses to people around the world.
PETER MAYBARDUK: Our initiative is born in part of the recognition that right now there isn’t actually a plan to end the pandemic. The global equitable vaccine access initiative, COVAX, which is very important, is a collaboration of the World Health Organization with (Bill) Gates-affiliated organizations, is aiming to provide maximum one in four people in low- and middle-income countries with a vaccine by the end of this year. And, frankly, that’s ambitious — probably won’t do quite that well.
At the moment, no one is sort of operating from a place of like “the pandemic will be over by this time,” “we will have we’ll reach herd immunity at time X.” There isn’t a plan to provide vaccines to everyone in the world. It’s much more about managing the pandemic. And I mean, there are efforts to sort of get to herd immunity over some period of time. But our analysis suggests that we really actually need a manufacturing program, a Warp Speed for the World, if you will, that we need to produce billions more doses within about a year’s time in order to bring an end to the pandemic and also bring relief to everyone in low- and middle-income countries. We think it’s possible if there’s considerably more ambition and high-level political leadership.
SCOTT HARRIS: As I understand it, the goal is to have vaccine manufacturing hubs on every continent in the world, particularly those hard hit by the pandemic: Latin Africa, Asia, Oceania. What are the obstacles standing in the way of going forward with the manufacturing? It’s not just money. It’s also the pharmaceutical companies that have patents on these critical vaccines. They would have to make the decision to waive their patent rights. Is that correct?
PETER MAYBARDUK: Yeah, it’s both the patents and essentially dossiers of confidential information. Or even potentially just know-how knowledge that exists in the heads of engineers that will have to be passed on person to person in some cases. And companies are hesitant to do that for their short-term profit interests, but also longer term because they essentially envision selling future products using similar technologies. So we think in that regard, we need, again, high-level political leadership to call those companies to the table and say, “This is a once in a generation, perhaps once in a lifetime crisis. We need you to share that information and you will be compensated for the research and development that you’ve put in appropriately. We can afford at this moment to essentially pay drivers of real invention. But, we can’t afford corporate commercial secrecy blocking our ability to scale up vaccines or allowing other countries to produce their own.”
SCOTT HARRIS: As I’ve heard, if there are outbreaks of coronavirus anywhere in the world, it is going to impact everyone in the world at some point. So it’s in the interest of everyone on the planet to make sure as many people here are vaccinated with effective coronavirus vaccines. What is the cost of inaction here if we don’t follow through on what you’re suggesting in this initiative?
PETER MAYBARDUK: Well, it’s greater insecurity at home. The literal financial cost is trillions of dollars worldwide of further delaying the global reach of vaccinations. It’s certainly at least hundreds of billions of dollars for the United States, which relies on global supply chains and exports and imports. But, of course, the more important cost is in human lives. We think the difference between setting up a manufacturing program for the world and not lose a million lives, perhaps more — and obviously it’s not a simple or a pleasant thing to model out — but if we think about the ability to shorten the global pandemic by a year, perhaps more, it’s obviously a great many lives and a tremendous amount of economic activity worldwide at stake.
And also other issues potentially like political stability. As I talk to colleagues that work in other countries, we sort of get an increasingly difficult picture where people really don’t know when the pandemic will end, when they’ll be able to plan for their families. And the political situations can get worse in an environment like that as well. So we are talking about returning a measure of stability to the planet, and it would seem like even if the costs were far, far higher than what we are proposing, it would still be worth doing.
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