Written by Peter Rossman, former Director of Campaigns and Communication for the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF).
“The multilateral trading system anchored by the WTO is not confined to cross-border trade in physical goods. It was also designed to protect corporate knowledge monopolies. ‘Free trade’, according to the WTO, would enhance developing countries’ productive capacity through technology transfer and upskilling. The Covid-19 crisis tells a different story. The global distribution of patent-protected knowledge is highly skewed along the North/South axis reflected in the geography of vaccine production and vaccination rates. About 85% percent of vaccinations to date have been in wealthier countries, where Covid death rates have dropped dramatically. But at the current rhythm, it will take decades for people in low-income countries to be fully vaccinated.
Two things are essential to close the gap and accelerate mass vaccination: full utilization of existing capacity and expanded vaccine production in developing countries. This requires loosening the vaccine makers’ grip on the monopoly of knowledge and technology embodied in their manufacture: the companies’ intellectual property rights (IPR). This knowledge is embodied in patents and other forms of intellectual property which allow their owners to determine who benefits from the product, at what price and when.
When governments funded vaccine development, they invested the vaccine makers with exclusive rights to their production, pricing and distribution. Limited supplies sustain a sellers’ market in which, for example, Pfizer’s price of US$19.50 per dose brings a profit margin estimated at 60% to 80%.”