The People’s Vaccine

The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General,18 January 2021

by Dylan Lee

Image source: Getty Images

Sixty seven years ago, a group of children rolled up their sleeves for their moment in history on Feb. 23, 1954, at a mass inoculation in Pittsburg. The new polio vaccine they received was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk at the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh.

When asked who owned the patent to his life-altering polio vaccine, Jonas Salk famously replied, “The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” In the last few years of the polio epidemic that gripped America in the 1940s and 50s, tens of thousands of children were paralyzed per year, often with permanently life-changing consequences. Salk’s foundation gave the formula and production processes for his polio vaccine to pharmaceutical manufacturers for free – a decision that marked a monumental step in eradicating the polio virus not only in the United States, but around the world. 

Today, a different pandemic grips our world. Yet in the much-lauded scientific race to produce a vaccine against COVID-19, there has been a clear absence of Jonas Salk-inspired humanitarianism. Companies like Moderna and Pfizer have taken the spotlight for their lightning fast response in innovating mRNA vaccines, and their success is extolled in spectacular capitalist fashion. Stock prices skyrocket as vaccine company executives make millions of dollars and toast the wonders of the free market. Meanwhile, the rest of the developing world waits in anxious hope for the miracle drug to reach them. The nonprofit Oxfam has announced that 90 percent of people in developing nations will not be vaccinated in 2021. To date, all of Moderna’s and Pfizer’s vaccine doses have been bought up by rich, Western nations. 

Image source: mfsaccess,org

The call for equality in access to vaccines has been taken up by many. Healthcare advocates around the globe have increasingly demanded recognition of a “people’s vaccine.” They demand companies like Moderna and Pfizer recognize the collaborative effort that resulted in the innovation of a COVID-19 vaccine. They demand that major pharmaceuticals waive their patent rights so that generic versions of vaccines can be produced and distributed to poorer nations. They demand that equity go before profit. For the most part, they are on the losing end for going against the pharmaceutical industry. But the fight goes on. 

For all the lengths that vaccine companies go to defend their intellectual property, they cannot ignore the basic fact that the vaccine isn’t truly theirs. It’s ours. Government institutions like the National Institute of Health fund billions of dollars worth of basic biomedical research every year. Public funding for universities across the country helped generate record-breaking amounts of COVID-related discoveries this year. Where did all of that money come from? The taxpaying public. The American people have funded every step of this vaccine, from its invention to its distribution. 

The groundbreaking discovery that mRNA could be used to make vaccines was discovered by two scientists in a University of Pennsylvania laboratory. Years of basic research conducted by underpaid scientists and technicians and funded by the public ultimately end up being the sole intellectual property of a company like Pfizer. 

Only one drugmaker seems to be open to a more equitable distribution. AstraZeneca, the only major company whose drug was developed in a partnership with a public university (Oxford  University), announced that it would reserve 64% of its vaccine doses for developing nations. It was also the first to announce that it would sell 1.24 billion doses of vaccine to developing nations through two partnerships: one with an Indian drugmaker and one with COVAX, the UN initiative to fund poorer nations’ vaccination efforts through a partnership with richer nations. Pfizer and Moderna, both opted out of the COVAX partnership. Now, as they both enjoy huge contracts with the U.S. and Europe, they can safely monopolize vaccine distribution in the wealthiest nations on Earth. The majority of the world will have to wait for other heroes. COVAX hopes to be the world’s saving grace, though it still lacks funding to buy enough doses for everyone. The Trump administration had refused to participate in COVAX. Last week, President Joe Biden pledged $4 billion to the World Health Organization’s COVAX plan designed to help provide COVID-19 vaccines for 92 low- and middle-income economies around the world. The new administration is committed to working through COVAX to ensure there is equitable distribution of vaccines and funding globally.

When Jonas Salk refused a patent for the poliomyelitis vaccine, he recognized that he was not the hero of his story. Millions of Americans, through the March for Dimes foundation, had contributed enough pocket change and lunch money to pay for the research and development of the polio vaccine, a staggering 80 million dollars raised through grassroots fundraising. The American people could take pride in a vaccine that they made. This was not some company’s achievement; it was, quite literally, and very powerfully, the product of every American. COVID-19 should be no different. Covid vaccine is not Moderna’s. It is not Pfizer’s. It is the people’s vaccine. And it should stay that way.

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