The decision by the United States to support a temporary suspension of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines has rattled drugmakers, split US allies and cheered advocates who believe the move is essential to providing equity of access to these life-saving shots around the world.
The idea has received backing from almost 60 countries, including France and Russia but not the UK or Germany. Although European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen says the EU is "ready to discuss" it, the union has been lukewarm on the idea. German chancellor Angela Merkel has reiterated her scepticism, arguing that allowing any drug manufacturer to make copycat vaccines without fear of being sued would stifle the sort of innovation that led to these vaccines materialising so quickly in the first place. Big pharma makes the same point, although it is slower to acknowledge that most of the leading vaccines were developed with huge state investment.
The Biden administration has shown real leadership by shifting course in the face of heavy lobbying. The current global crisis is on a scale that justifies extraordinary measures, and the disgracefully lopsided rollout – where young and healthy people are being vaccinated in the West while healthcare workers and vulnerable older people struggle to receive enough oxygen, let alone a vaccine shot, in the developing world – says everything about the limits of global solidarity.
Yet this alone will not solve the problem, certainly not in the short- or medium-term. Producing mRNA vaccines is specialised and time-consuming work; it would take at least a year for a factory to start making it safely. To confront the crisis the world faces now and into 2022, the key is production and distribution. That requires states to invest to facilitate higher production and the licensing of new manufacturing sites as well as improving infrastructure for supply lines. And it demands that they share more vaccines. Let us not forget that the US, unlike the EU, blocked all vaccine exports until it had secured enough doses to inoculate its entire adult population.