Profit & Pandemic: Inequitable Access to COVID-19 Vaccines
By Sinead de Cleir
After over a year of social isolation and unimaginable loss, COVID-19 vaccines provide a path to normal. Despite this, access to vaccinations remains inequitable, prolonging this global health crisis.
Although countries have poured public funding into rapid vaccine development, vaccine patents fall under the scope of intellectual property (IP) laws. One international legal agreement, The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) grants a minimum of 20 years during which patent holders have exclusivity over their product. As a result, IP laws such as TRIPS enable vaccine monopolies by empowering corporations to control the supply, pricing, and distribution of their products.
When the use of patents impedes people from exercising the right to health, IP laws infringe upon human rights and deepen inequalities. The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) asserts that states “have a duty to prevent intellectual property and patent legal regimes from undermining the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights.” Simply put, assigning monetary value to life-saving technologies violates the right to health. Because pharmaceutical companies control vaccine supply and cost, less wealthy countries are left behind in the race to vaccinate their populations. This injustice─the disparity in vaccine access─has been dubbed “vaccine apartheid.”
Just as IP laws lead to inequitable access to vaccines, they also perpetuate global inequalities as countries within the Global South must take on debt to afford vaccine supplies. Pharmaceutical companies set exorbitant prices and countries may even pay different amounts for the same shot; a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine costs $8.50 for Uganda but $4.00 for the United States. Even distribution within countries is inequitable. As governments struggle with high prices, they attempt to recoup costs or prioritize certain groups of people: Egypt charges residents for the COVID-19 vaccination and Kenya’s policies favor the vaccination of diplomats.
For people returning to pre-COVID life in areas of high vaccination rates, an end to the pandemic still remains distant. In Brazil, despite estimates that 60% of the population, a threshold for herd immunity, was infected by COVID-19 by June 2020, cases surged in January 2021 due to a new variant. Higher vaccination rates aim to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, but herd immunity hasn’t been achieved due to vaccine distribution disparities. Additionally, as vaccine disparities lengthen vaccine roll-outs, the greater the chances of a new COVID-19 variant appearing and spreading. Even as wealthier countries progress toward normality, lower vaccination rates in less wealthy countries ensure that the pandemic is here to stay.
A decolonial approach that eliminates tools such as IP laws may help decrease the dependency of the Global South on the Global North. Instead of entrapping states in debt through high costs and providing “help” through loans, resources should be dedicated towards improving healthcare infrastructure, deconstructing barriers to healthcare, and prioritizing human rights. Profit cannot be placed above human life.
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