Vaccinating billions of people across the globe is an urgent necessity for curbing the COVID-19 pandemic. As long as the virus continues to circulate more or less freely in the world, it may mutate into variants that the current suite of highly successful vaccines cannot suppress. Assuming that achieving herd immunity requires that 70 percent of the world's population be immunized, that amounts to 5.4 billion fully inoculated people (some of whom would be among the several hundred million who have already recovered from the disease after being infected).
How can we speed up the process of getting vaccines distributed around the world? One proposal being floated at the World Trade Organization by a group of around 100 poorer countries is to temporarily suspend intellectual property rules related to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Activist groups like the People's Vaccine Alliance assert that suspending the vaccine patents "will help break Big Pharma monopolies and increase supplies so there are enough doses for everyone, everywhere." In addition, leading American politicians including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) are urging President Joe Biden to agree to this step.
This is a bad idea. First, vaccines are complicated biological products that cannot be reverse-engineered the way many regular pharmaceuticals can be. Additionally, manufacturing them takes special expertise and purpose-built facilities that are simply not available outside of most developed countries. Releasing vaccine recipes won't do poor countries any practical good with respect to actually getting doses distributed and administered to their citizens.
Although clearly self-interested, the director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations Thomas B. Cueni correctly argued in his New York Times op-ed:
Dismantling patent protection would do nothing to expand access to vaccines or to boost global manufacturing capacity. Research scientists develop vaccines in record time because they have the security and resources that come with a robust system of protection for their intellectual property. That system is crucial to allowing companies to create the vaccines we need for wide distribution.
So how feasible is getting 5.4 billion people vaccinated by the end of this year? Let's take a quick look at the promises and projections made by the various vaccine makers both currently approved and likely to be approved by the middle of this year.
Pfizer/BioNTech: 2.5 billion doses of the two-dose mRNA vaccine.
Moderna: 700 million doses of the two-dose mRNA vaccine; 1.4 billion in 2022.
CureVac: 455 million doses of the two-dose mRNA vaccine.
Johnson & Johnson: 1 billion doses of the one-dose viral vector.
CanSinoBIO: 500 million doses of the one-dose viral vector.
Sputnik V: 300 million doses of the two-dose viral vector.
AstraZeneca: 3 billion doses of the two-dose viral vector.
Novavax: 2 billion dose capacity of the two-dose spike protein.
Sinovac: 2 billion dose capacity of the two-dose killed virus.
Bharat Biotech: 700 million doses of the two-dose killed virus.
Making the huge assumption that all will go well with testing and manufacturing, the above figures suggest that there could be enough COVID-19 vaccines to fully vaccinate more than 7 billion people by the end of this year. If this is the case, supporting the efforts of groups like the COVAX consortium to get vaccines to poor countries, not seizing vaccine makers' patents, is the real way to save lives and end the pandemic.
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