Today, the pandemic, which the whole world is constantly battling with, has shaken the entire humanity. Even the mighty nations, despite their immense economic power and the advance health facilities, appear awfully helpless. India too, faced such a situation in the month of April-May, when we had to deal with acute shortage of oxygen, hospital beds and even the medicines.

Today in the world, vaccine is being considered as a panacea to solve this problem. Significantly, 6 countries, including the US and Israel, have freed their people from the compulsion of wearing masks while vaccinating majority of their adult population. Therefore, it is believed that if we vaccinate our entire population, then we will also be able to minimize the health and economic damage from this pandemic.

Unequal distribution of vaccines

If we look at the availability and distribution of vaccines in the world, we find the same is highly unequally distributed. In such a situation, if the aim is to eliminate this pandemic from the world, then it is necessary to vaccinate the whole world. It has to be understood that all the countries of the world are connected with others, in some way or the other. If any country is completely or partially left, then this pandemic can raise its head again. 

Significantly, after the outbreak of this pandemic, vaccination was found to be the only trustworthy solution for the same.  Since then work for vaccine development started in India with both indigenous and foreign efforts. Two indigenous efforts have been fruitful in India, one of which is for the manufacture of Covaxin by Bharat Biotech Company, which has set the target of manufacturing 550 million vaccines between August and December. And the second indigenous effort was the vaccine of a company named Biological E of Hyderabad, which has booked an order for 300 million doses from Government of India to be delivered between August and December this year. Apart from this, a major effort was made for vaccine development in India by the Serum Institute of India in collaboration with Oxford University. According to the estimates of the Government of India, between August and December, the Serum Institute will manufacture and make available 750 million vaccine doses. The Government of India has announced that the entire population will be vaccinated by the end of the current year. On June 7, 2021, Prime Minister has also announced for free vaccine for all from June 21st.

World is worried

Due to the huge potential of vaccine manufacturing in India and the efforts made since the beginning, by the government, the speed of vaccination in India has been higher than other countries, but due to the large population of the country, the target to vaccinate the entire population is a bit distant. But it may be true that by the end of this year we should be able to complete our target of vaccinating the entire population. But if we talk about the rest of the world, we find that except a few countries of the world including India, most of the countries do not have the capacity to manufacture vaccines. India has been a major source of vaccine for the world. These countries would be dependent on selected companies of the world to buy vaccine. Due to the ongoing patent system and other types of intellectual property rights in the world, most of the global companies are selling vaccines at very expensive prices. It is worth mentioning that whereas, in the initial phase in India, mostly vaccination was done free of cost by the government after procuring vaccines at a price of nearly rupees150 per dose; and private sector was administering vaccine at rupees 250 per dose; global companies like Pfizer and Moderna are selling the vaccine at $US 20 to 50 (1500 to 3750 rupees) per dose. Governments or people of poor countries cannot afford such an expensive vaccine. Price is the biggest barrier for a universal access to vaccine. One can understand that patents and intellectual property rights are the biggest reasons behind the high price of vaccine. To overcome this obstacle, India and South Africa have urged the World Trade Organization to grant TRIPS Waiver for a limited period. 

TRIPS Waiver

In October 2020, India and South Africa jointly proposed in the World Trade Organization that in view of the corona pandemic, vaccine and essential medicines should be exempted from the provisions of TRIPS for a certain time period (to be determined) to ensure adequate production and availability of vaccine and medicines at reasonable prices. This effort has already got the support of more than 120-member countries. In the end of May, a meeting of the proposer countries was held for this, in which these countries finalized a proposal and this proposal demands exemption from the provisions of TRIPS for Covid vaccine and medicines for at least 3 years. This proposal also demands ensuring of essential raw materials for the production of vaccines and medicines, technology transfer and freedom from trade secrets.

It has to be understood that while the TRIPS Agreement provides for the protection of intellectual property rights, however, TRIPS provides for numerous flexibilities as well, whereby, in the event of health emergency, pandemic etc., the provisions of TRIPS can be relaxed to work for the humanity. In addition, more clarifications were given on this subject in the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health at the Ministerial Conference of WTO held in Doha in 2001. It has been clarified in the Doha Declaration that in the event of public health crisis, pandemics, serious diseases like HIV-AIDS and others, the member countries will have the right to make medicines available in sufficient quantity and also export them at affordable prices by issuing compulsory licenses for medicines.

It is observed that due to subjects like patents and other intellectual property rights, monopoly on technology and raw materials, trade secrets etc., there are obstacles in the access to vaccine and medicines to poor countries. Unfortunately, European countries and some other developed countries are creating obstacles in the way of these efforts of India and South Africa for TRIPS Waiver for humanity. But it is a matter of satisfaction that the US administration has changed its earlier stand and now they have supported the proposal of TRIPS Waiver of India and South Africa for the vaccine (not so far for medicines). On June 8, there was a pleasant development, that member countries resolved to go for a text based discussion on the issue, despite some reservations shown by European Union and a few other countries. It will become clear in the months to come whether humanity will win in the face of corporate profits. Will patent-free vaccines and medicines really become a reality or will poor countries will have to buy expensive medicines from these companies; and force those to die without medicines and vaccine, who are unable to buy them? Need of the hour is that the humane forces of the society ensure victory of the human race by creating public pressure to ensure patent free vaccines and medicines.

 

~ Dr. Ashwani Mahajan

National Co-Convener, Swadeshi Jagran Manch