The hoarding of vaccines, the lack of local production and transparency by pharmaceutical companies have marked the beginning of global vaccination. While some countries have acquired five times more doses than they require for their population, others do not have a guaranteed dose. Around the world, the lack of vaccines translates into seriously ill people and deaths.
The humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) supports a petition to release patents and achieve mass vaccination. In conversation with DW, Josefina Martorell, its general director for Spanish-speaking South America, exhorts to put public health above economic interests.
DW: A few months after the start of vaccination against COVID-19, inequality is the central issue, countries with higher incomes have more vaccines than the rest. Is it necessary to release patents?
Josefina Martorell: That’s right, at Médecins Sans Frontières we support a petition that India and South Africa have submitted to the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 medical tools, including vaccines, diagnoses and treatment until achieve herd immunity. It can be found at www.msf.org.ar/patentes.
What is the problem today in vaccine production?
Very few laboratories control vaccines, decide prices, quantities and delivery times. They cannot produce enough to meet global demand, and there are shortages, especially in low- and middle-income countries.
At MSF they are well aware of the importance of vaccination, what is the risk of not achieving it in the short term?
Variants will continue to be developed and some vaccines will not be effective. Then other forms of this COVID-19 pandemic will appear. At the level of utilitarianism, what is in our best interest throughout the world is for the pandemic to end everywhere; otherwise it won’t end for anyone.
Have any patents been released before?
This pandemic is an exception and justifies it. A similar suspension was applied at the beginning of the HIV / AIDS epidemic to give low-income countries the possibility of adopting drugs. This negotiation took place over a period of time and helped millions of people.
Which governments have supported the release of patents?
There are more than 100 countries that have supported the petition around the world; others are against it, for example, in the region, the United States and Brazil. However, we believe that this can be achieved, as each country represents one vote before the WTO. At the moment there are discussions and the decision would be made in March.
What if high-income countries vote against it?
If the patent would be opened, what they can do is that it continues to be protected in their own country. Some vaccines use more advanced technologies, which prevents some countries from producing them. In other vaccines against COVID-19 it is only necessary to know the formula and local companies can produce it. This is not against pharmaceutical companies; They will be able to continue producing it and already have a competitive advantage, they have even signed contracts with governments. They have won and will continue to win.
COVAX was intended as a global equitable access fund for vaccines. What happened?
At the moment (02.22.2021) it will have access to only 2% of everything that Pfizer will produce and it is to be distributed among 145 countries. It is an option for low-income countries, but all countries have applied to be part. As a result we see dysfunctional situations, where high-income countries are requesting vaccines from the mechanism, although they already have five times more than the doses they require for their population.
MSF reaches far away places with supplies to fight the pandemic.
What has been the work of Doctors Without Borders during the pandemic?
We continue to work around the world with more than 450 projects, plus work with COVID-19. In the region we are in Mexico, Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia. We have also opened emergency missions in Peru and Ecuador due to the high contagion and lethality in the most vulnerable areas where access to medical care is low. We work in Manaus, Brazil, as it is the gateway to the Amazon region and last year the contagion began, which spread to several remote regions where indigenous communities live and with catastrophic consequences.
Has the pandemic been the biggest challenge the organization has ever faced?
It has been one of the most important, so is Ebola, which is now returning with an outbreak in Guinea. That worries us a lot. The pandemic required us to readjust, because in a natural catastrophe or even during Ebola, our staff and supplies arrive at the scene within 48 hours. With COVID-19 we were limited by closed borders, especially in the first months.