People wait to get a dose of the Covishield vaccine in New Delhi on May 4, 2021.
Prakash Singh—AFP/Getty ImagesPeople wait to get a dose of the Covishield vaccine in New Delhi on May 4, 2021.

As the wealthy recipients of these extraordinary vaccines, we must demand more from the companies that make them and from our own government. The lessons of the fight against HIV clearly show us what happens when profits come before health for the neediest. For instance, Pfizer made $41.9 billion in 2000, a year when HIV activists and doctors were aghast that the company’s patented anti-fungal, fluconazole (which could be made for pennies), was priced so high that it remained unaffordable for countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Fluconazole was the only treatment for cryptococcal meningitis, an AIDS-related opportunistic infection with a high mortality rate if untreated. AIDS patients in Africa needlessly died of cryptococcal meningitis due to lack of access to this patented drug until South Africa openly defied patent laws in 2000.

Meanwhile, in 2000, the pharmaceutical industry spent $167 million on lobbying during the U.S. election campaign, in part to protect their patents. Those life-saving ART medications I mentioned earlier were not available for most poor countries for many years. In 2001, Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, said, “Some may think that because better medicines have been found, the AIDS emergency is over. Alas, no. For most people living with HIV/AIDS today, the $10,000 to $60,000 annual price tag of an antiretroviral regime belongs, quite simply, in another galaxy.”

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The Biden Administration is debating whether COVID-19 vaccine patents should be temporarily waived, given the devastating humanitarian crisis unfolding in India from the virus. There are two key factors that should drive the Biden team to agree to do so: first, there is strong precedent on waiving patents in the context of public health emergencies; second, the real-world effectiveness of most COVID-19 vaccines against symptomatic disease and transmission can temper the disaster. The Biden Administration will be making its decision on lifting some patent restrictions as early as May 5.

India faces a catastrophe, with over 350,000 new cases and 3,450 deaths (most certainly underestimated) from COVID-19 reported on May 3. Heartbreaking scenes in India of overflowing hospitals turning away dying patients and crematorium pyres burning all night are playing out against news of how fast many wealthy countries with rapid vaccine roll-outs will be getting back to normal life.

Pharmaceutical companies producing COVID-19 vaccines and holding patents are reaping billions of dollars in profit and are projecting further profit from sales of booster shots before scientists even know if boosters will be necessary. In October 2020 (prior to India’s current crisis), India and South Africa formally proposed to the World Trade Organization (WTO) Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIP) that IP provisions for COVID-19 vaccines be temporarily waived for India and other countries to mass produce these vaccines for their populations. On March 5, 2021 (as COVID-19 cases were just ramping up in India), CEOs from major pharmaceutical companies involved in COVID-19 vaccine production sent an open letter to President Biden urging him to reject this “unfortunate” proposal.

As an infectious diseases and HIV doctor, this debate sounds all too familiar, reminding me of how, despite the development of highly-effective antiretroviral therapies (ART), rigid adherence to patent laws directly led to millions of lives lost to HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s.. I witnessed plummeting AIDS-related mortality from the first half to the second half of my medical internship at a hospital in San Francisco that year, thanks to these new ARTs, a miracle afforded initially only to those with AIDS in wealthy countries. There are eerie parallels in 2021 where as a practicing infectious disease …read more

Source:: Time – World


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