To get more vaccines worldwide, US companies need to give up their intellectual property rights

Juan Manuel Santos
·5 min read

Every leader’s legacy is defined by great challenges. President Barack Obama led the rescue of the global economy in the aftermath of the global financial crash. Chancellor Angela Merkel led the welcoming into Germany of refugees fleeing war when few would. President Nelson Mandela led South Africa out of apartheid and made peace with his longtime adversaries, as we did in Colombia.

Today President Joe Biden has on his shoulders not one but many extraordinary tests of unparalleled scale. Not a hundred days have passed in his administration and already — fortunately for the world — we are seeing what leadership looks like: domestic action to control the pandemic to global efforts toward tackling climate change and pursuing progressive corporate taxation.

Poor countries don't have access to the vaccine

The most urgent test, however, that still needs leadership from the international community is action to end the pandemic. We must feel ashamed with the state of global vaccine rollout: 86% of all vaccines have gone to the richest nations with only 0.1% reaching lower-income countries. Most poor countries face waiting until at least 2024 to have their people immunized. Some might never get there.

The world is not short of leaders taking admirable measures to beat the pandemic within their borders. But ending the pandemic cannot be achieved in any one country alone. COVID-19 anywhere is a threat to humanity everywhere. As has been said, nobody is safe until everybody is safe. And defeating it inextricably relies on U.S. leadership.

That is why I joined more than 170 former world leaders and Nobel laureates from every continent to encourage President Biden to play the role that only he can: Scale up the global supply of safe and effective vaccines, and give people across the globe the chance to wake up in a world free from the virus.

COVID-19 vaccine on April 15, 2021, in Miami.
COVID-19 vaccine on April 15, 2021, in Miami.

What we are asking is for President Biden to support a temporary waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO) of intellectual property rules on COVID-19 vaccines and technologies. This move, combined with U.S. leadership on both technology transfer through the World Health Organization, and a coordinated global investment in the distribution of manufacturing capacity, would allow the world to produce billions of more vaccines — particularly in the developing world — so we can beat this virus everywhere.

Nobody should take this call lightly. We all believe in the power of free markets. We recognize the industrious role of the intellectual property system in stimulating innovation, including, of course, for medicines, that has helped foster economic and technological progress.

But the system in this case is not delivering and cannot be protected at all costs.

Today’s unprecedented pandemic — that has killed over 3 million people, pushed tens of millions into destitution and is threatening deadly new outbreaks — demands unprecedented measures.

Full support of intellectual property protections by rich nations is failing us all. It is preventing efforts from using available capacity, and upscaling it, to make vaccines around the world. Let us be bold: Standing by pharmaceutical monopolies in a global pandemic is allowing people to be killed when they could be saved. As simple as that.

Global solutions based on charitable donations, or supporting the very limited COVAX initiative, are certainly helpful. But far from enough. What is truly needed is qualified manufacturers over the world being able to produce COVID-19 vaccines.

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Times like these is when strategic government action is needed. It is governments, especially U.S. taxpayers, that overwhelmingly funded the development of COVID-19 vaccines. A waiver, on a temporary basis until the virus is eliminated, would be a pragmatic and effective global solution. It is greatly encouraging that the Biden administration is considering supporting a WTO waiver proposal by South Africa and India. We hope other countries join and follow through.

Vaccine inequality would cost the world economy

Supporting such actions to swiftly make available a vaccine to everyone, everywhere — a true people’s vaccine — would make the United States and the rest of the world safer and more prosperous. It helps prevent new COVID-19 variants from developing, which even threatens the already vaccinated.

It also makes economic sense. According to recent data, today’s vaccine inequality could cost an estimated $9.2 trillion in global economic losses. The United States could lose up to as much as $1.3 trillion in gross domestic product, and $2,700 per person in household spending this year, which is $1,300 more than the recent stimulus check that each American received from President Biden’s administration.

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A WTO waiver to allow the transfer of vaccine technologies and a coordinated investment in their manufacturing would be seen as a profound act of much needed solidarity with a very distressed world. Not only the United States but the developed world as a whole would be wise to follow. Indeed, this is a great chance for the U.S. to regain its global standing. Countries and citizens in every continent will long remember where the oldest democracy stood in their hour of need.

I have had the privilege of working closely with President Biden, as vice president, and before, as a relentlessly committed champion of peace and security, and as a friend. The world is fortunate to have him at the helm today.

With fellow world leaders, I ask him to take the urgent action necessary to end this pandemic for all. That would be a legacy to be proud of.

Juan Manuel Santos is the former president of Colombia and the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2016.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden needs to support a waiver at the WTO to spread vaccines worldwide