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There has been much discussion about the vaccine rollout across economically advanced countries and across the developing world. There are only 39 economically advanced nations and over 145 economically developing. The virus is rampant, more virulent and mutating faster in developing nations. An issue has been the pharmaceutical companies refusing to allow vaccine replication without having patents in place. This means they are placing profit before human welfare.
Let me make it clear from the outset that commercial enterprises that are innovative should be able to earn profits from the creation of innovations that improve human health and quality of life. Pharmaceutical firms that create new vaccines are no exception to this.
So, if the premise is that businesses are motivated by profit, under what circumstances, if any, should it be an imperative that businesses waive that requirement?
Whilst businesses cannot be compelled to do what is right, many businesses and business owners will price gouge if an opportunity becomes available. This has been evident throughout the pandemic and is evident with the issue about patents.
The question is, is there a point when the greater good is a factor that should determine the behaviour of people?
So let us consider the issue of vaccine patents. A vaccine patent would allow a business to control who can create vaccines and under what sort of licensing arrangement. In effect this means that a contractual arrangement would shape the partnership between the owner of a registered patent and those who seek to manufacture. These kinds of contractual arrangements are incredibly hard to write and once in place would determine the price at which such vaccines are available in the country with whom the agreement has been made. They take time, and funnel profits back to the patent holder.
Historically the use of patents may have been appropriate to give financial certainty to firms that innovate in the area of medicine and pharmaceuticals. Whether this is the case in a COVID world, at least in the short to medium term, is highly contestable.
It seems to me that businesses right now have an imperative to allow the greatest access to vaccines as possible. It should be clear that this means profits in the short to medium term will be far less than they would have been, should businesses have decided to proceed with forcing vaccine makers to abide by patents.
Why should innovative pharmaceutical businesses allow vaccines to be rolled out patent free? Quite simply – because it is the only right thing to do.
However, let’s take a selfish, profit-driven perspective. While companies withhold – the virus mutates! This means that their own products lose efficacy and value. Time is therefore of the essence.
The test of human behaviour is what is done when people are suffering. A crucial test of humanity is how people respond if their profits are reduced in order to reduce the level of human suffering.
This is not a contest in a market. It is a question of basic humanity. That is allowing nations with the facilities to produce vaccines under a Creative Commons license free of charge.
Under current international regimes, WHO and other international bodies would certainly assist in covering any licensing fees should there be a need for cost recovery. Moreover, governments are prepared to pay, but they should not be buying at commercial rates. They should be buying at the lowest possible price. Indeed, this could be one of those situations where everyone gets a free vaccine and later, should there be a debt accrued, that debt simply be forgiven.
In this way, all countries suffering from an outbreak of coronavirus would get the level of vaccine protection they need, and quickly, while human suffering is put to the side. Profits – always only ever meaningful in the context of a society where people are safe and aren’t suffering – would then be justifiable.
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