As an artificially low supply of Covid-19 vaccines prolongs the global pandemic, opponents of intellectual property waivers and other measures aimed at increasing the worldwide production of doses are claiming that pharmaceutical corporations are capable of quickly rectifying shortages on their own.
According to a new analysis published Thursday by advocacy group Public Citizen, however, this “dangerous narrative”—peddled by Big Pharma and based on “unrealistic” manufacturing projections—undermines efforts to develop and implement the ambitious policies necessary to expand the production of life-saving vaccines and bring the greatest public health crisis in a century to an end.
“People suffering and waiting for vaccines worldwide cannot afford for leaders to embrace wildly optimistic forecasts suggesting Covid-19 doses soon will be available,” Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program, said in a statement. “We need urgent public manufacturing and technology sharing to meet global need and end the pandemic.”
Prior to U.S. President Joe Biden’s surprise endorsement last week of the India and South Africa-led motion at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to suspend coronavirus-related intellectual property barriers for the duration of the pandemic, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) wrote the White House in an attempt to dissuade Biden from supporting the proposal, which is now backed by nearly every country outside of the European Union.
In their letter (pdf), the industry lobbyists claimed that “Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers will supply approximately 10 billion doses by the end of 2021, enough to vaccinate the entire current global vaccine eligible population.”
Although PhRMA failed to prevent Biden from embracing the movement for a vaccine patent waiver, Public Citizen warned Thursday that the emerging narrative that “the supply problem will soon be resolved” is still being “weaponized against structural reforms aimed at expanding supply.” At the WTO, where decisions are made by consensus, any one of the body’s 164 member nations can thwart the will of the supermajority.
“Pharmaceutical companies have a financial interest in exaggerating their ability to deliver and downplaying the risks,” Maybarduk explained.
Meanwhile, COVAX—the United Nations-backed program to allocate vaccines to low- and middle-income countries, which health justice advocates have accused rich donor countries of hiding behind while they oppose the WTO patent waiver as well as C-TAP, the World Health Organization’s voluntary technology transfer program—had shipped less than 50 million doses by the end of April, roughly one-fifth of its projected target of 235 million jabs.
Public Citizen argued in its analysis that the pharmaceutical industry’s rosy outlook on global vaccine supply recklessly subverts attempts to develop and implement a truly viable program for boosting production while failing to account for the following six factors:
- Some vaccines may not be widely authorized by stringent regulatory authorities;
- Existing manufacturers may not be able to rapidly scale-up due to production errors and other delays, including shortages of raw materials;
- Boosters may fuel additional demand;
- Variants may render some current vaccines ineffective;
- Countries may stockpile doses; and
- Even if 10 billion doses are produced and distributed equitably, it may not be enough.
According to Public Citizen, “even if none of the risks identified above materialize… vaccinating the world will require 12 billion doses” assuming 80% of the global population needs to be inoculated.
“The global response to ending the pandemic cannot be based on the most optimistic assumptions,” said Zain Rizvi, law and policy researcher at Public Citizen and author of the analysis. “Crossing our fingers is not a sustainable public health strategy.”
Instead of relying on a handful of private companies to rapidly produce billions of doses, a coalition of more than 60 groups, led by Public Citizen, recently urged Biden to immediately launch a global vaccine manufacturing program, as Common Dreams reported last month.
Public Citizen estimates that with “a whole-of-government effort to share technology, source raw materials, and provide technical assistance… the U.S. government can help rapidly produce 8 billion doses of mRNA vaccine for $25 billion.”
“A waiver on intellectual property can further help remove obstacles to production,” Rizvi noted. “The unprecedented global crisis demands an all-hands-on-deck response.”
This article first appeared at Common Dreams.