With the COVID-19 vaccination campaign going smoothly in wealthier countries like ours, attention is turning to poorer countries where access to the vaccines is more difficult. Not only is it fair that everyone benefit from this great scientific feat, it’s also the only way of reducing the global risk posed by more virulent variant strains of the virus. But what’s the best way of achieving this goal?
Politicians in many countries are calling for the waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. While their motives may be pure, and the idea is at first glance alluring, it doesn’t pass the fairness test. If countries like ours are currently well on their way to defeating COVID-19 and resuming our normal lives, it is first and foremost thanks to the genius and perseverance of scientists and the pharmaceutical companies that employ them. Depriving them of ownership of the fruits of their labour and investment sounds more like a vendetta than a measure meant to help poorer countries.
Populists may decry the fact that the companies that conceived and now manufacture these vaccines stand to make a healthy profit in 2021, but we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that profit is the engine of our economic system. If there is no profit at the end of months or years of hard work, we can expect a lot less money to be invested into getting such work done. Fellow feeling and a sense of common cause will only get us so far. For the sake of preserving our ability to innovate in the future, we can’t afford to set such a destructive precedent.
Canada already has a shaky relationship with pharmaceutical companies. By and large, they have eschewed manufacturing in this country, a fact made painfully obvious by our inability to produce vaccines domestically. Now that Canada is finally trying to attract investments from these very companies, it would be awfully counterproductive to attack their intellectual property rights.
By and large, we live in a populist era. But we can’t afford to lose sight of our goal, which is to get people in poorer countries vaccinated, not to attack those currently making a profit for having created the vaccines that will set us free. The good news is that there are many ways of doing this that do not involve robbing Peter to vaccinate Paul. After all, when Canada decides to send food to countries facing starvation, we do not steal it from farmers and food producers. We buy it from them. Nothing else offers a viable or repeatable solution.
The most efficient recourse is the most direct one: Governments and charities should purchase vaccines and either donate them or sell them at discounted prices to poorer countries. This is already happening indirectly: In the case of the Pfizer vaccine, wealthier countries are effectively subsidizing the sale of vaccines to poorer countries at cost.
Another such initiative is the COVAX program led by the World Health Organization. Countries with the means to do so, like the United States, are working with COVAX in order to send vaccines to countries in dire need of more jabs. Some COVAX members, including Canada, made the morally dubious decision to take COVAX allotments when their own supplies ran low. Perhaps Canadian politicians musing publicly about an intellectual property waiver for vaccines are trying to make up for interfering with poor countries getting more shots just a few months ago. If so, it’s a misguided guilt trip.
In the weeks and months ahead, Canada should use its influence and financial heft to buy vaccines for countries that can’t afford them and call on other countries and civil society to do their part as well. Together, we can ensure that everyone on the planet gets as many jabs as necessary. And we can do it without demonizing the vaccine producers who in fact have been the crisis’ angels.
Miguel Ouellette est directeur des opérations et économiste à l’IEDM. Il signe ce texte à titre personnel.