• Dhathri Srungaram

Vaccine Distribution: COVAX and the IP Debate

For many in the global community, the development of effective COVID-19 vaccines puts an end in sight to the year of death and tragedy that the world has experienced. However the battle is far from over, the world still faces the enormous challenge of manufacturing and distributing the vaccine, and as it often happens, those most in need of assistance are forced to struggle the most to get it.

Individual nations are occupied with ensuring that they vaccinate their populations as quickly as possible. Since there are only a handful of successful vaccines, governments would have to compete with each other in order to secure supplies. This hurts everyone involved as it would inevitably slow the distribution process, and is unfair to countries that simply can’t rival the buying power of countries with larger economies. It is important to remember this isn’t over until everyone is protected; new strains of the coronavirus can develop and affect people, travel will resume, and the best way to protect everyone is to vaccinate everyone.

Both COVAX and the debate over IP (Intellectual Property) rights, as pertaining to the vaccine, have been in the news recently, and both will have a massive effect on the distribution and accessibility of vaccine materials.

COVAX, which stands for COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, is part of a response coordinated by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations), and the WHO (World Health Organization) that aims to increase access to vaccine supplies worldwide.

COVAX would act as insurance, allowing every country, regardless of buying power, to have the same access to vaccine supplies. Wealthier countries will invest in vaccine development and production, ensuring that they and the rest of the world will have access to the vaccines.

This brings us to another important topic regarding vaccine production and supply, the debate over IP rights that have been in the news cycle these past few weeks. Private companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, raced to create a successful COVID-19 vaccine to meet the supply-demand that currently exists in the global market. These companies and others like them have patented their vaccines, meaning that no third party can produce the same vaccine.

This debate isn’t new, IP rights on life-saving medicines have restricted access to these drugs for years. Allowing other companies to produce generics of these same vaccines could lower production and development costs. This would in turn allow more countries and therefore more people access to the vaccine. Several countries including India and South Africa have asked the WTO (World Trade Organization) to, “exempt COVID-19 vaccines from IP protections, contending that this action would mobilize additional manufacturers and help address vaccine access disparities,”. Countries like India and others who have backed this proposal are worried about how long it will take for new developments in the global pandemic to be available, “in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices to meet global demand,” (These requests have been made specifically about COVID-19 vaccine materials during this global pandemic and not about other drugs.).

Friday, the 12th of March, 2021 marks the third time that the WTO’s Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) rejects the request to waive the IP rights. In total, 57 countries backed the proposal, while the governments of the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and others didn’t support the request for a waiver. However, they have agreed to meet again before the scheduled council (TRIP) meeting in June to further discuss the waiver and possibly reach an agreement.

Of course, the other side of this argument is the belief that innovation and development are rooted deeply in capitalism, and that removing the right to claim your property as your own and to subsequently profit off of your innovation, would negatively impact growth and development in science and technology in the long run. Additionally, there are many who don’t believe that a waiver like this will do much to help vaccine distribution, claiming that there is no reason to think that existing trade rules will not suffice. However, it is important to remember that a lot of the research needed to develop the COVID-19 vaccine was done by national labs, paid for by governments, with taxpayers' money. Pharmaceutical companies in turn use this research to develop and produce vaccines.

If the appropriate steps are not taken to ensure an equitable distribution of the vaccine there is an increased risk of having large numbers of unvaccinated people around the world. This could leave the human population open to another pandemic caused by the SARS Cov-2 virus that may have otherwise been prevented.


Speaking Plainly:

  • COVAX, an effort led by the WHO, the CEPI, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, aims to ensure that less wealthy countries, with lower buying powers, have equal access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

  • The push to exempt successful COVID-19 vaccines from intellectual property (IP) and patent laws is being led by a global advocacy group that aims to create a greater and more affordable supply of vaccine materials.

  • Arguments against the proposal to waive IP rights on COVID-19 vaccine materials state that it could negatively impact innovation in science and technology in the long run.