Global inequality: New drugs go the way of vaccines

Synopsis: As the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed, there is an urgent need to work on health inequity to ensure that everyone has access to affordable medicine.


Recently, many countries, including India, moved a proposal at World Trade Organization (WTO) for waiving the intellectual property rights on critical medicines and technologies related to the Covid-19 pandemic. This highlights health inequity on critical medicines.

What is the level of health inequity during the pandemic?

Countries in the developed world have produced, consumed and stockpile about 75% of the total vaccines manufactured. Some developed countries are even providing booster shots after completing vaccination. While only 3% of the people in developing countries have received the vaccine. This clearly shows the prevalent inequity in access to critical medicines.

Why is the supply of Covid-related items constrained?

The core of the issue of this inequity lies in intellectual property (IP). Companies making drug discoveries protect IPR’s very aggressively. So even at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, patients and governments were struggling to get equipment like masks, testing kits, critical drugs due to intellectual property rights concerns.

Read more: Intellectual Property Rights(IPR) and Universal Vaccination – Explained, Pointwise

The crisis deepened further as there was a breakdown in the global supply chains. This followed the stocking of equipment and an artificial increase in prices.

Now the countries do have medicines that can help in reducing the viral load, but given the cost of these medicines, there is a need to provide a waiver for critical medicines.

What attempts have been made towards health inequity during the pandemic?

India and South Africa, at the World Trade Organization, raised the concern for waiver of intellectual property rights for critical medicines in COVID-19 treatment. This proposal was then backed by nearly a hundred countries. However, EU, Switzerland and UK have stalled this proposal. They argue that this proposal will discourage innovation.

But if it is accepted under TRIPS, it would facilitate technology transfer of Covid-19 therapies. Biotech companies and generic producers will be able to mass-produce COVID-19 vaccines and therapies and make them available to developing world countries like Bangladesh, sub-Saharan Africa.

What should be the way forward?

There is a need to come to an agreement in WTO. Compulsory licensing, if granted, leads to pressure and legal harassment between the companies and countries.

So health activists urge the MNCs to share the formula which can be used to quickly ramp up the manufacturing of vaccines and therapies. This step towards global collaboration can be vital in thwarting the next health threat.

Source: This post is based on the article “Global inequality: New drugs go the way of vaccines” posted in the Times of India on 27th October 2021.

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