The global south needs rich countries to be committed on vaccines


A US Centers for Disease Control computer rendering of Covid-19


“Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art”
– Andy Warhol

If there is anything more callous and cynical than Germany and France’s thumbs-down to Joe Biden’s suggestion on Covid vaccine patent-suspension, I’m yet to hear it.

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron talk a good line on humanism, morality and justice, but some say that when it really comes down to it, the balance sheet is all that matters. Perhaps they don’t mean it to sound the way it does?

And then there’s Mrs Merkel’s fellow German, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. She was asked this week about her position on the debate around whether it would be right to vaccinate European children, given the limited number of doses available globally.

Mrs von der Leyen offered a canny, very controlled answer. She didn’t buy into the moral pressure from World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said some days ago that rich countries vaccinating children is a “moral catastrophe.” Instead, she said at a press conference: “We need scientific advice on whom to vaccinate, how to vaccinate and in what order. It’s not a political decision, it’s clearly [an] evidence-based, scientific decision.”

In other words, we’ll just have to see. The issue, of course, is not purely about German attachment to intellectual property rights, the country supposedly filing the most patent applications of any other, every year.

The issue also isn’t simply the lifting of the patent-waiver. After all, the global south would need the technical knowhow as well, on making a vaccine.

That said, the tone of the debate also matters. On the face of it, delicensing Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccine technology would be of enormous value in defeating the coronavirus pandemic. Just the other day I heard about the idle pharmaceutical factory in Senegal, which has the capacity to manufacture huge amounts of vaccine.

Mrs Merkel has said that delicensing would punish vaccine innovators but I’m not sure of the basis for her argument. Pfizer is set to make $26bn in revenues this year from its mRNA vaccine (two shots of which are in my body) with multibillion margins. Moderna is also doing very well. The vaccine-makers have been helped by large advance purchase deals, speedy regulatory approval and blanket liability protection.

This is not the moment to worry about big pharma’s pocket but to care about saving lives. It doesn’t matter how it’s done – sharing know-how; joint manufacturing hubs. It must be done.