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Why the World Needs a People’s Vaccine

A group of people waiting in line outside of a medical tent
People wait outside a medical tent to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at a hospital in Harare, Zimbabwe, on March 29, 2021. © Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty

Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected more than one hundred million people and killed more than three million. In Brazil and India, which currently account for more than half of new global cases, the virus shows no indication of subsiding, pushing these countries’ health systems past the breaking point and leading to unspeakable human suffering.

At the end of 2020, multiple vaccines were successfully tested and rushed to market. As of January 2021, rich countries representing 16% of the global population had hoarded two-thirds of doses from the most promising COVID-19 vaccine developers. The world’s poorest countries might even have to wait until 2023 to vaccinate their own populations.

Now, vaccine inequality is prolonging the pandemic, leading to more deaths. Allowing the virus to replicate and mutate in hotspots puts the entire world at risk, possibly rendering current vaccines less effective. Not only that, but our global economy cannot rebuild if it remains vulnerable to this virus, with experts predicting a $9 trillion “worst-case” global economic catastrophe. The world will not succeed in ending COVID-19 until vaccinations are affordable and widely accessible to all.

What is the reason for the dire shortages that the world is currently facing?

The vaccine shortage is an artificial problem because the pharmaceutical companies currently producing vaccines simply cannot supply the necessary doses for everyone on the planet. But at the same time, they refuse to share the expertise and technology—the intellectual property—that would make it possible for generic or other manufacturers to make more vaccines.

Unfortunately, rich countries have defended the interests of big pharma and blocked moves to waive patent rights, something that would have boosted the production of COVID-19 vaccines for poor nations. While, on May 5, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden announced his support for a proposed World Trade Organization (WTO) waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, so far, the EU and countries including Germany, France, and the UK continue to oppose it. Moreover, no coronavirus vaccine manufacturer has yet agreed to participate in a WHO program, the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, to share the know-how needed to help developing countries make coronavirus vaccines.

What are other barriers to international cooperation to vaccinate the world?

One is “vaccine nationalism,” in which the governments of the world’s wealthiest countries engaged in a race to ensure that their citizens were the first to receive doses. As the vaccines were being developed, governments of rich nations made deals directly with pharmaceutical companies, contributing billions of dollars in public funds to support their development, testing, manufacturing, and distribution. In exchange, these countries received guaranteed access to a predetermined number of doses. Unfortunately, this resulted in some rich countries securing more doses than were needed—while other countries went without. A waiver of intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines would increase the global supply of vaccines by allowing more countries to produce them locally.

Another challenge is pharmaceutical companies potentially selling the vaccine at high prices that ensure big returns for their shareholders, at the expense of the public interest. In fact, companies stand to rake in hundreds of billions of dollars in profits. While some pharmaceutical companies have said they would provide their vaccines on a not-for-profit basis during a pandemic, they could change course as soon as this year.

COVAX, a global initiative that coordinates international resources to enable low-to-middle-income countries equitable access to COVID-19 tests, therapies, and vaccines, has made some shipments to lower and middle-income countries. However, rich countries that joined COVAX were able to keep their bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies—undermining multilateral cooperation and perpetuating the scarcity problem. As of April 2021, COVAX still had not secured enough doses to vaccinate all health workers in participating lower and middle-income countries.

What’s the solution?

Around the world, groups are working together to call for a people’s vaccine: a vaccine that is patent-free, produced at scale, and made available, free, to people everywhere. Supporters of a people’s vaccine include human rights and health organizations, past and present world leaders, experts, faith leaders, and economists.    

The People’s Vaccine Alliance, a growing coalition in support of this proposal, is calling on governments and pharmaceutical corporations to:

  • Ensure the vaccine is purchased at true cost prices and provided free of charge to people
  • Prevent monopolies on vaccine and treatment production by making public funding for research and development conditional on research institutions and pharmaceutical companies freely sharing all information, data, biological material, know-how, and intellectual property
  • Ensure the vaccine is sold to governments at affordable prices, and that pricing is transparent and based on the cost of research, development and manufacturing, as well as taking into account any public funding provided
  • Implement fair allocation of the vaccine which prioritizes health workers and other at-risk groups in all countries and includes marginalized groups, with allocation between and within countries based on need, and not ability to pay
  • Ensure full participation of governments in developing countries as well as civil society from North and South in decision-making fora about the vaccines and ensure transparency and accountability of all decisions

Vaccine nationalism, in which powerful countries securing vaccines and treatments at the expense of less-wealthy countries, is a self-defeating act of financial and economic self-harm. Vaccines must be for people, not for profit.

What is Open Society doing to help improve vaccine access?

Drawing on the philosophy and ideals reflected in the call for a People’s Vaccine, Open Society Foundations is:

  • Contributing $2 million for a Cross-Regional People’s Vaccine Advocacy Campaign that takes the shape of a coordinated Global South–led strategy centered on affordable and fair access to COVID-19 diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments, as well as protective personal equipment.
  • Amplifying Global South voices that are not traditionally part of the access to medicines debates.
  • Challenging the power imbalance between the Global North and the Global South by urgently advocating for immediate equitable access to vaccines and treatments, and engaging Global South governments to invest in research and development and manufacturing capacity in order to limit dependency on the Global North. This shift in research and development, as well as manufacturing power, from the Global North to the Global South can be seen as a mechanism to push for systemic change in the global health architecture.

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