Sharing Vaccines Around the World
There has been talk in the media about rich countries blocking the rights of developing countries with regard to the Covid vaccine. On face value, this looks disgraceful, and when I read the headlines I feel a rush of anger, the campaigner in me starts to protest and I am ready to start writing letters. But wait. There is more at stake than first appears.
Governments know that they need to share the Covid vaccine. If only the rich countries are vaccinated, then variants will develop rapidly and the vaccine will be useless. I don’t know how quickly our rich governments are sending vaccines to poorer countries, but they do at least understand the science and are making generous-sounding claims. We can help them with this by being vocal amongst ourselves and on social media. We need to share the vaccine with others.
The issue is whether developing countries are given permission to produce the vaccine, and this is a different issue altogether. If the patents are dropped (the legal thing that allows the vaccine developer to control who can make it) then it will be harder to ensure safety standards—will the vaccine be produced and transported and stored correctly? We do not have the same food safety standards around the world, I assume we also don’t have the same pharmaceutical standards around the world.
There is also the issue of money. There has been a lot of bad press recently about drugs companies and individuals making money from the vaccine, but I tend to dismiss this. (People love to hate rich people—look at the general hatred towards bankers, even though much of the income that makes England wealthy is generated by those same hated bankers. I suspect jealousy is often the motivation.) I don’t know how rich the pharmaceutical companies are, but I do know that if we remove their revenue, they will stop investing in new drugs, and working for those companies will become an unattractive option.
People increasingly expect to receive things for free. This has caused a huge upheaval in some markets—if everyone streams their music for free, what happens to the people who produce the music? If all books are read online for free, what happens to the authors? If all films are viewed via streaming and the cinemas all shut, who will have the money to make quality films? Could the removal of patents be the start of the same problem for drug companies?
Ah, you might say, but we could centralise them, make them the property of the people and put governments in charge. Perhaps you are right, but in my experience that didn’t work very well in the past. When I think of the industries controlled by the government a few decades ago, most of them were inefficient and costly. When I have visited countries that were run by a single communist government, I don’t see places that I would choose to move to.
I think the problem is that people are basically greedy. When populations have a wealth of food, they get fat. When governments are in control of too much power, the bureaucrats get rich while the populations suffer. Today, the heads of pharmaceutical companies will be getting rich—but only if they produce drugs that are effective. If we remove their ability to get rich, then someone else will get rich instead but the quality of drugs will spiral with their demotivation.
I don’t know whether patents should be removed from medicines—that is beyond my field of expertise and I can only offer opinions. But I do know that when we decide policy, we are foolish if we don’t factor in human flaws. Sometimes the least bad option is the best we can hope for.
Thank you for reading.