02/01/2021

Herd immunity and the pitfalls of vaccine patents

2 min
Una infermera preparant les vacunes per a les residències de l’Alt Pirineu i Aran.

To achieve covid-19 herd immunity, the scientific community prefers, as we explain in the newspaper, that about 90% of the population acquires resistance to the coronavirus by having the disease or, better, by getting vaccinated. At the beginning of the pandemic, based on the first data obtained in Wuhan and Italy, it was reported that 60% of the population would be enough to reach immunity. However, the more that is known about covid, the clearer it becomes that its capacity of contagion is higher and is increasing; this is demonstrated, for example, by the variant recently detected in the United Kingdom. Therefore, apart from the fact that improved treatments to combat the disease once it has been acquired will make it less lethal, if we really want to make the virus vanish, a massive and globally coordinated vaccination action will be necessary. This is the only way to restore social normality at a global level. Nevertheless, to achieve this, a twofold problem is evident on the immediate horizon: on the one hand, vaccines are coming out with patents held by pharmaceutical companies and, on the other, rich countries are hoarding present and future stocks, even beyond their needs. This double factor makes it very difficult for developing countries, which represent three quarters of the world's population, to gain access to the vaccine.

The plausible solution would have to involve pharmaceutical companies: if they could not exploit patents the price of vaccines would be substantially reduced and therefore more accessible. Because of how the market is now organised, the rhetorical commitment of leaders such as Merkel or Macron - in the sense that they would make efforts to ensure that the vaccine reaches everywhere - is not being fulfilled in practice. Apart from the scientific evidence that herd immunity may require up to 90% of the population, there is another political argument in favour of this socialisation of the vaccine: to achieve it, there has been an immense and unprecedented injection of public money, from which now, however, the industry benefits. It can be true that sometimes, the system of private patents encourages research, however, in this case it is clear that research has received a great deal of public funding. Therefore, one should not only think about making vaccines without a patent, but also, and closely related to this, there should be regulated prices that would allow private investment to be recovered and a profit to be made, but at the same time the distribution of the vaccine everywhere - not only in wealthy countries - should also be guaranteed. In fact, this January the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is due to debate the possibility of suspending patents on vaccines, treatments and covid-19 tests for the duration of the pandemic. Such a decision would undoubtedly be a step forward in the fight against the virus, as well as setting an interesting precedent for putting the common interest (in this case, global health) ahead of individual economic interests. We must therefore be attentive to the debates and decisions taken in the framework of the WTO.

stats