CHICAGO, Illinois — India is in the grasp of a massive COVID-19 outbreak, with more than 27 million confirmed cases and more than 300,000 deaths since January 3, 2020. These statistics are not just concerning for India but for the world at large. The COVID-19 outbreak in India is also affecting the global vaccine supply. The Serum Institute of India (SII) is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer and is contracted to produce half of the two billion vaccine supply for the COVAX sharing scheme in 2021. Due to the outbreak, India suspended exports in March 2021, which impacted the vaccine supply. Projections expect this vaccine deficit to rise to 190 billion doses by the end of June 2021.
What is COVAX?
COVAX is a vaccine-sharing program intended to end the global COVID-19 pandemic by providing vaccinations for at least 20% of the populations of the world’s most impoverished nations. COVAX delivered its first consignment of vaccines to Ghana on February 24, 2021, followed by another round of vaccines to more than 100 countries. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 outbreak in India is affecting the global vaccine supply, and thus, preventing COVAX from making the vaccine deliveries it had previously promised.
The Serum Institute of India
The Serum Institute of India is the world’s largest vaccine producer and India’s top biotech company. Originally founded to provide vaccines within India without the added expense of importing them, the SII became so effective that India became self-sufficient and no longer had to import vaccines. The SII invested hundreds of millions of dollars in COVID-19 vaccines, including the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which the WHO intended to be the main vaccine used in COVAX. Due to AstraZeneca shortages and the way the COVID-19 outbreak in India is affecting the global vaccine supply, the African Union no longer intends to secure the AstraZeneca vaccine for its populations.
Vaccine Patent Waivers
One proposed solution to address the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak in India on the global vaccine supply is a temporary waiver of intellectual property and patent rights for COVID-19-related pharmaceuticals. In October 2020, India and South Africa asked for a waiver that goes beyond patent flexibilities protected by the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement, Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The waiver would not just give the countries patent-protected information but would also give them all data necessary to create the vaccines, even copyright material and trade secrets. Pharmaceutical manufacturers and countries with strong pharmaceutical sectors are understandably hesitant to waive protection for this information, but creating vaccines with only the bare minimum of information available under the TRIPS flexibilities is unlikely to be successful.
So far, in India, only the SII has permission to make the AstraZeneca vaccine. While India can override patent rights by issuing a compulsory license that would allow other manufacturers to produce the vaccine without waiting for WTO agreement, this could cause a backlash that would limit aid from wealthier countries to India. India would be hesitant to risk this as it is in desperate need of aid. Even if India issued a compulsory license, setting up manufacturing and obtaining raw materials for vaccines would take months.
Vaccine Donations From Wealthy Nations
Currently, the most promising solution to alleviate vaccine pressure is to have wealthy nations donate their excess vaccines to COVAX. Some countries have already purchased enough vaccines to inoculate their entire populations two to five times over while others are still unable to vaccinate even 5% of their populations. UNICEF encourages wealthy and powerful G7 nations to donate 20% of their vaccine supplies in the months of June, July and August, freeing up around 153 million vaccines for COVAX. So far, several countries such as France, Belgium, Spain, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates are now pledging donations. On May 17, 2021, President Biden announced that the U.S. would donate 80 million doses, making it the largest vaccine donor worldwide.
A collaborative global approach will ensure an end to the pandemic. When speedbumps arise, the world needs to come together to develop a solution. When one country goes unvaccinated, the entire world is unprotected. The world needs less vaccine nationalism and more vaccine equity and diplomacy.
– Hilary Brown