WHO Calls for Vaccine Patent Pool as Virus Spreads in Developing World

Backers of the initiative argue sharing information will allow scientists to find solutions faster.

People wait to fetch water from a row of communal taps provided by Doctors Without Borders in a suburb of Harare, Zimbabwe, on April, 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

(CN) — With the coronavirus pandemic spreading faster in the developing world, the World Health Organization and national leaders on Friday launched a plea to ensure patents for drugs and vaccines developed to combat Covid-19 are shared around the world to ensure even the poorest can be treated.

The pandemic is entering a new phase where developing countries are now seeing the number of coronavirus infections and deaths rising. Friday saw Brazil, Russia and India all report record jumps, a clear sign the pandemic is accelerating in many parts of the world just as Europe, parts of Asia and the United States appear to be gaining control of their outbreaks.

Worldwide, the number of Covid-19 cases is approaching 6 million and more than 362,700 deaths have been linked to the respiratory disease.

For months, health experts have warned the pandemic will only be stopped once a vaccine or effective treatments have been developed and distributed around the world. The problem is that vaccines and drugs may be so costly that many people, even those in wealthy countries, may be unable to afford them.

To prevent that, the WHO launched an initiative on Friday involving the sharing of data, patents, blueprints, designs, protocols and other information that go into the making of tools to fight Covid-19. The project is called the Covid-19 Technology Access Tool.

“Now more than ever, international cooperation and solidarity are vital to restoring global health security, now and for the future,” the global health agency said.

By Friday, 37 countries had signed onto the pledge, though most of the signatories were smaller countries. A handful of European nations, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal, are among those joining the initiative. The world’s superpowers – including the United States, China, Russia, France – have not signed onto the pledge.

However, China and many European countries, including France and Germany, have said they favor global distribution of vaccines at affordable prices. U.S. President Donald Trump has been mum on the matter.

“We have a challenge of a lifetime to guarantee universal access to health technologies we need to face Covid-19,” said Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado, who first proposed the idea of setting up a repository for Covid-19 information.

As an initial success story, he touted Boston Scientific, an American medical equipment maker, and the University of Minnesota joining the WHO initiative and providing the designs for a ventilator that can be produced anywhere in the world.

He also said the University of Costa Rica is providing the blueprints for a plasma treatment for patients who are seriously ill with Covid-19 and said designs for medical masks are being shared.

“There is no point in achieving these amazing technological developments if we cannot guarantee affordable access to these technologies,” he said.

Officials and experts who spoke during the launching of the initiative stressed that the pandemic requires a global response because as long as the virus is circulating anywhere it puts others – even those on the other side of the planet – at risk.

Women wear face masks as they wait at a Covid-19 testing site n the Estrutural neighborhood of Brasilia, Brazil, on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

“As long as we have one person sick with Covid-19 anywhere in the world we are all potentially going to be sick with Covid-19,” said Jacques Dubochet, Swiss biophysicist and Nobel laureate, during the initiative’s launching during a WHO briefing. “So it is a shared problem. However, if you have a shared problem, you need shared tools to tackle it.”

Joseph Stiglitz, an American economist and Nobel recipient at Columbia University, said overcoming the pandemic with therapeutics and vaccines cannot be left to the usual market forces.

“We’re going to need billions of doses of whatever medicines are going to be produced. That means it is really important to scale up at a low price,” he said. “It’s in the interest of all of us that the price be low and that is not going to be achieved through the monopoly pricing of the drug companies.”

He said there is an obvious economic incentive for drug companies and every nation to sign up to the pledge for universal access to Covid-19 tools.

“This pool of ideas is absolutely essential if there’s going to be the fastest innovation possible and speed is extraordinarily important in dealing with this pandemic: The longer it lasts, the more people who die, the worse the devastation of the economy,” he said.

He added: “The question is whether the corporate level, the institution level, buy into this.”

Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager, said governments are pouring vast amounts of public funds into the research for a vaccine against Covid-19 and they should be requiring private companies and institutions doing the work to ensure their medicines are made available to the world at an affordable price.

“We need all governments to come to the table along with all pharmaceutical companies,” she said.

Stiglitz said the government money backing much of the research limits the risk private investors face and drug makers can still reap profits through royalties and the sale of the drugs.

A street actor walks trough the almost empty Palace Square in St.Petersburg, Russia, on Thursday. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

Backers of the initiative said pooling information will allow scientists to find solutions faster.

Mariana Mazzucato, an economist at University College London, said governments need “to actively create and shape this market” and avoid competition. She said the development of all these medicines and tools to fight the pandemic must be “done in such a way to really foster what the 21st century is about, which is collective intelligence.”

Stiglitz said a greater level of global equality in the face of the pandemic can only be achieved by supporting this approach.

“If we leave it to the usual mechanisms of monopoly for pharmaceutical companies, who are driving up the prices, it will mean that those who are poorer, whether they are in the rich countries, in the middle-income countries, or the whole of the poorer countries, they won’t have access unless we have this kind of patent pool,” he said.

Already, many officials in poorer countries say they are suffering from a lack of access to tests and medical equipment.

“Regrettably, the last few months have brought us closest to the wild, wild West of fictitious fame,” said Mia Amor Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados.

She said many Caribbean nations are having trouble getting the supplies they need to deal with the pandemic. She said trust in the post-World War II system built around democratic values, international institutions and multilateralism is at stake.

“It is our common humanity that has brought us to this point and it will only be through our common humanity that we will emerge from it,” she said, adding the pandemic “must not create winners and losers.”

The urgency of ensuring poorer countries are able to handle the pandemic is growing as the virus spreads into many parts of the world with weak health systems, overcrowded cities and poor populations.

Friday saw worrying trends around the world.

India recorded a single-day high of 7,466 cases. In all, 4,706 people have died in India from the disease and 165,799 cases have been detected, which means India has overtaken China both in terms of the number of cases and deaths. The deadly virus emerged from China in December. India is set to lift a lockdown on Sunday.

Brazil, a new epicenter in the pandemic, also saw a record jump in cases with 26,417 new cases and 1,156 new deaths. Brazil’s death toll now stands at 26,754.

Russia reported a record high number of deaths with 232, bringing its total to 4,374. Iran also reported its highest number of new infections in almost two months, saying it had detected 2,819 new cases. Pakistan, meanwhile, reported 57 new deaths, its most in a single day since its outbreak emerged in February.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. 

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