Geopolitics

Nix The Patents: The Case For COVID Vaccines As A Public Good

The pandemic is too big a crisis and too unpredictable to respect the normal trade rules governing pharmaceutical developments.

A nurse prepares the COVID-19 Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in the UK
A nurse prepares the COVID-19 Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in the UK
Carlos Parada

-OpEd-

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).

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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