Since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic the people of the world including of India have been told that the only way to eradicate this pandemic is to quickly develop vaccines and administer them to the majority of people in the world as early as possible. While vaccines have been developed and given emergency approval for use despite their limited testing, their availability is coming in the way of speedily vaccinating people. The acute shortage of vaccines is due to the insistence of international and Indian pharma monopolies to exercise their monopoly rights through patents and control the production and price even in the midst of a global health crisis.
Covid vaccine production at present is monopolised by a few companies all over the world —Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson of USA, AstraZeneca of Britain, Sputnik from Russia and Sinovac and Sinophram from China. A few dozen vaccines are at various stages of development in different countries of the world, including Cuba and India. Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are among the largest pharma monopolies of the world. (See Box on patents)
Box 1 –Patents
Patents are a form of intellectual property (IP) rights that grants the companies long term (20 years or more) monopoly in the market over inventions. During this period all decisions related to invented products including vaccine (or drug) manufacture, selling/distribution to public, supply price and even licensing technology to other manufacturers are completely in the hands of patent holders. While other manufacturers are allowed to obtain licenses for production, the patent holders receive a huge sum of royalties/fees against this license. Charging exorbitant prices, prohibiting parallel imports, limiting supply through exclusive licensing contracts, evergreening patents by modifying inventions minimally, are commonly witnessed practices of patents holders.
Big Pharma companies have sold their vaccines mainly to the richest countries. US is expecti ng to receive 600 million doses from Moderna and Pfizer, two American monopolies by the end of July 2021, while 130 countries have not received even a single dose of vaccine. This way it is estimated that the complete vaccination program is likely to stretch till 2024 in such countries.
In India, Serum Institute of India (SII) is licensed to produce vaccine developed by AstraZeneca as Covishield and sell it in India. SII is also obliged to export the vaccine under the international vaccination programme of WHO and Gates Foundation, for which it has also received a grant. Another vaccine available in India presently is Covaxin, developed by the Indian pharma company, Bharat Biotech with the support of the Indian government. In spite of government funding, patent rights are with Bharat Biotech. About half a dozen more vaccines are under development and testing in India.
Patent holding companies claim that the patent rights incentivize innovations and reimburse the cost of research and development they incurred for the innovation. However, a substantial amount spent during research and development of Covid vaccines was in fact public money. In almost all the countries, governments have funded every aspect of vaccine development, i.e. clinical testing, research, regulatory approvals, development and also manufacturing capacities. It is reported that governments worldwide have invested € 93 billion (Rs 8,35,000 crore) in development of Covid vaccines and medicines since the start of the pandemic. (See Box for details)
Box 2 – Government Funding for development of Covid vaccine
|Pharma Company||Funding government||Amount, $|
|AstraZeneca & Oxford University||US & UK||1700 million
(Rs 12,500 crore)
|Sanofi & GlaxoSmithKline||US||2100 million
(Rs 15,000 crore)
|Pfizer & BioNTech||Germany||445 million
(Rs 3300 crore)
|Johnson & Johnson||US||1500 million
(Rs 11,000 crore)
|Bharat Biotech||India||Not known|
Vaccines, as well as the technology for manufacturing them must be available to all countries of the world. The private profit interests of global vaccine monopolies must not be allowed to override the needs of humanity. This is all the more so when the lives of millions of people are at risk as a result of a global pandemic, and public money has been used to develop the vaccines.
Yet, international pharma monopolies have been allowed to patent their vaccines with the result that vaccines can be produced by others only if these monopolies grant them a license. This has prevented many countries from producing vaccines for their own populations. Moreover, such licenses require payment of large royalties and license fees to the patent holding company, making the vaccine more expensive.
The supply of Covid vaccines to most countries is also getting limited because of the fierce contention among the big imperialist powers to grab the largest shares of the vaccine. US and UK have cornered the largest quantity of vaccine, hoarding much more than necessary to inoculate their entire populations, while dozens of countries have hardly received any vaccine. Less than 2% of the vaccines produced so far has been made available to the countries of Africa, home to 15% of the world’s population.
International pharma companies want to control both production and prices to profiteer from the current global health crisis. This is not the first time that the pharma monopolies want to profit from miseries of the people. In the early 90’s, when many less developed countries were battling with HIV/AIDS, the pharma monopolies exercised their patent rights over drugs to deny others manufacturing rights. At the same time, the prices were kept exorbitantly high to ensure maximum profit, which resulted in killing of millions of people who couldn’t afford these drugs.
For the past several months, over a hundred member countries of the WTO, with India and South Africa in the lead, have been agitating for waiver of patent on vaccines developed for Covid-19. However, countries likes US, Germany, France, Britain, Switzerland, Japan, Australia, Brazil, etc have been opposing this move.
The criminal and callous attitude of the ruling cliques of the countries of North America and Europe in defending the interests of pharma monopolies and depriving peoples of less developed countries of the covid vaccine has resulted in widespread opposition from countries and peoples throughout the world. In this situation, in order to shore up their credibility, leaders of some of these countries, like the US, have come out with public statements that they are willing to waive patent rights for covid vaccines.
The World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) rules allow that under certain conditions patent holding companies can be forced to compulsorily grant licenses. This however requires a unanimous decision of the member countries. This is very unlikely, given the dominant power of pharma monopolies in US, Germany, Britain and other countries. The biggest vaccine manufacturing companies in the US have publicly declared their opposition to any move to eliminate patents on vaccines for covid-19. The leaders of European Union have openly expressed their disagreement with any move to waive patents on vaccines. In the light of this, the recent statements of US President Biden and some others suggesting they are for ending patents on Covid vaccines should be seen for what it is — an attempt to assuage public opinion in the US and internationally.
The Indian government knows well that the struggle over ending patents over covid vaccines is going to be a prolonged one. Behind the Indian government’s opposition to patents in the pharma industry, lie the interests of Indian pharma monopolies. These Indian companies are contesting US and European pharma monopolies for domination of markets in Africa and Asia.
At the same time, ending patents in medicines and vaccines is in the interests of the world’s peoples.
The government of India is using the struggle going on in the world over the issue of ending patents for covid vaccines, to cover up its own criminal role in creating the health crisis in the country.
The government is not even serious about ending patents on medicines and vaccines. Otherwise, why has it allowed Bharat Biotech, the producer of Covaxin, to claim production rights over the vaccine? The fact that it has not used its emergency powers to force the two companies currently producing vaccines in India to share their technology with other pharma companies shows that it does not care for the health and well being of the people of our country or the peoples of other countries.
The struggle over ending patent over covid vaccines is a just struggle.
The insistence of pharma monopolies to use their patent rights even under a pandemic deserves condemnation. Pharma monopolies, whether foreign or Indian, cannot be allowed to profiteer from the pandemic, affecting the people of the whole world and of India!