The pandemic is too big a crisis and too unpredictable to respect the normal trade rules governing pharmaceutical developments.
PARIS — Extraordinary times, as the saying goes, call for extraordinary measures, — and nowhere is that more imperative than with the patent regulations governing the recently developed coronavirus vaccines.
In normal circumstances, it takes 10 years before a drug is authorized for sale, plus another 10 years of marketing by a single producer before the patent falls into the public domain as "generic." But in the current context, as the world grapples with an unprecedented crisis, those rules just don't make any sense.
Patents give companies the right not only to produce the vaccines, but to do so exclusively for 20 years.
Remedies are available, but not enough and not for everyone since only a few companies own the patents that give them the right not only to produce the vaccines, but to do so exclusively for 20 years.
That privilege, however, has been overtaken by the historical moment. That exclusivity does take into account the current catastrophe. The 20-year period of private monopoly applied to vaccines for COVID-19 is so absurd, so unsuited to the global situation, that only our ideological ruts prevent us from questioning it. The fact is that we just can't wait for 20 years.
The industrial monopoly on vaccines is dangerous and unfair. It is dangerous because we are wasting precious time. Apart from the financial price, the production and sales system of a few private industries will never be able to keep pace. At this rate, for too long not enough people will be vaccinated and the COVID-19 virus will continue to circulate, kill and mutate all over the world.
With these mutations, other vaccines may be needed and then other treatments will have to be invented, produced and purchased at a high cost. More importantly, much more aggressive forms of the virus could appear.
Yes, we've already adapted to many things since the start of this pandemic. But how will we react the day when, through a mutation, COVID-19 starts killing young people and children? The more time that passes, the less we vaccinate on the five continents and the more we risk random, unanticipated mutations.
These vaccines are a public good; they cannot belong to anyone.
The monopoly and the shortage of vaccines it creates are unfair because they effectively create hierarchies among human beings. They separate and distinguish the rich from the poor, the young from the old, caregivers from educators, workers from the disenfranchised, powerful nations from others, and so on. At the beginning of 2021, the richest countries own and distribute, sometimes at a high cost, the vast majority of existing vaccines. But in whose name? In the name of what?
Today, vaccines and any future treatments must be considered as universal tools or goods, like fire, water or the wheel that no one would ever think of patenting. These vaccines are a public good; they cannot belong to anyone. No right, no ideological fear can justify this exclusivity. Let us fund research rather than the commercial exploitation of patents. These substances should be considered immediately as generics. Moreover, this must be our goal and we must compensate industries for any necessary investments.
Vaccines and any future treatments must be considered as universal tools or goods — Photo: Str/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press
With the global coronavirus pandemic, today more than ever, treating and saving lives is more than a right. It is a duty. All the nations of the world, all the governments, all the laboratories, private as well as public, must be able to produce and distribute the vaccines and treatments necessary to stop this disaster that overwhelms us. There is nothing revolutionary about this idea.
There has already been at least one precedent, with the treatment of AIDS in the 1990s. Faced with the shortage and the exorbitant prices charged by the pharma giants, the governments of several countries (including Brazil and India) decided to produce and distribute free AZT generics to treat their populations. Neither the pharmaceutical industry nor research collapsed, and millions of lives were saved. Let more willing rulers lead the way and others will follow.
In the current context, as the world grapples with an unprecedented crisis, those rules just don't make any sense.
So let it be said: The medical monopoly granted by the purchase of a patent is an undue and anachronistic appropriation of the needs of the whole of humanity in the face of COVID-19. The right to health is universal. The duty of governments to treat is a non-negotiable emergency. Letting this trade law, with its built-in 20-year monopolies, prevail would be an incomprehensible and dramatic error for which the rulers of each country would be the first responsible, and us, their consenting victims.
The question is simple: Should we still leave to some three or four companies the exclusive right to trade, manufacture and distribute vaccines and anti-COVID-19 treatments all over the world? The answer seems obvious.
*Carlos Parada is a psychiatrist, historian and author of Touching the Brain, Changing the Mind (PUF, 2016).