Opinion: COVID-19 vaccines are a global public good

Here in Georgia, frontline healthcare workers are receiving the first doses of life-saving COVID-19 vaccines. The development of these vaccines and the large-scale trials in which they were tested are a major scientific achievement that may bring about the turning point of the U.S. epidemic. However, while people in the U.S. benefit from this scientific discovery, government officials are blocking expanded access to COVID-19 vaccines for people who live in low- and middle-income countries through the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

In recent months, the World Trade Organization (WTO) met to discuss a proposal from South Africa, India, and other countries to temporarily waive specific provisions in TRIPS for the prevention, treatment, and containment of COVID-19. This waiver would allow these countries to access intellectual property and circumvent patents to either manufacture their own vaccines or import affordable generics from other countries. The U.S. and other high-income countries have blocked this proposal.

Christina Chandra

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

Notably, this proposal wouldn’t affect current supplies of COVID-19 vaccines or drugs in the U.S. It also does not affect the intellectual property or patents of non-COVID drugs or vaccines. This waiver would simply give low- and middle-income countries the ability to secure COVID-19 vaccines for their populations, which they currently won’t have -- possibly for years -- with greater ease.

Aniruddha Deshpande

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

There have been valiant efforts to secure vaccines for low- and middle-income countries, but, unfortunately, they are falling short. The World Health Organization (WHO) created a COVID-19 Technology Access Pool to facilitate companies sharing knowledge, intellectual property, and data on COVID-19-related health technology, including vaccines. Similar to the TRIPS waiver, this pool would allow for the mobilization of more manufacturers of vaccines to ensure coverage for the global population. But participation is voluntary, and to date, no major pharmaceutical company developing a vaccine or COVID-19 treatments has joined the pool.

COVAX, an effort led by Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, is attempting to secure enough vaccines to cover at least 20% of the population in low- and middle-income countries. However, the initiative has had trouble securing doses for 92 countries that make up half of the world’s population, while countries like the United Kingdom have secured enough doses to vaccinate their population as many as five times over.

With COVID-19 deaths approaching 2 million worldwide, we cannot afford to let people in other countries wait years for a vaccine. We need immediate action.

Intellectual property rights are designed to better guarantee a return on investment of resources in research and development and can act as an incentive for drug development. The development of COVID-19 vaccines has largely been funded by public funds, and the intrinsic incentive remains to end this reckoning rather than profiting for shareholders. The Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine that has been approved for emergency use in the U.S. was incentivized by a nearly $2 billion advance-purchase deal and uses a government-developed technology. Other vaccines developed by Moderna and AstraZeneca have been funded by taxpayer dollars. Therefore, these vaccines are a global public good. While firms such as AstraZeneca claim to provide vaccines at cost for now, this puts affordable vaccine supply at the whim of a private corporation for countries.

COVID-19 anywhere is a threat everywhere. In an interconnected world, it is not far-fetched that outbreaks could result from persistent transmission in other countries. After experiencing initial success in containing the virus, Australia is now experiencing a travel-related outbreak in Sydney and has postponed the Australian Open. Living in Atlanta, home to one of the busiest airports in the world, the threat is especially heightened.

As infectious disease epidemiologists, we realize the vaccine is a pivotal tool in overcoming this pandemic in Georgia and globally. Unfortunately, many of the world’s poorest stand to be waiting for these crucial vaccines for a long time as supplies are bought up and barriers remain to local production. The U.S. has an opportunity to be a leader in this pandemic by helping improve vaccine access rather than championing intellectual property rights at this critical moment.

Even as we celebrate vaccines rolling out to frontline workers and the most vulnerable people in the U.S., government officials are blocking that same access for people in poor countries. These actions will only prolong the pandemic and do not serve the interests of Americans. Our wish this holiday season is that our representatives choose to lead the fight against COVID-19 globally by ensuring vaccine coverage for everyone.

Christina Chandra, MPH, and Aniruddha Deshpande, MPH, are Ph.D. students in epidemiology at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.