As AIDS exploded across Africa and other poor countries, with close to 33 million people officially reported with HIV--the developing world was at a loss. At best, the poor countries could hope to prevent new cases of AIDS through educational programs.
By Srikumar Misra,
Living in South Africa around 2005, I had a first-hand, ringside view into the epidemic of AIDS impacting and devastating many lives. I felt compelled to do something, in some small way, whatever I could influence in my capacity at the time. I eventually managed to support the AIDS Foundation of South Africa by collaborating with a product launch. Much later, I would read about how the battle against HIV was won by some decisive and controversial steps taken by Brazil, when it decided on the universal provision of free of charge, state-of-the-art antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), something that probably saved countries like South Africa also from plunging indefinitely.
As AIDS exploded across Africa and other poor countries, with close to 33 million people officially reported with HIV–the developing world was at a loss. At best, the poor countries could hope to prevent new cases of AIDS through educational programs. The triple therapy — AZT, ddI, the protease inhibitors and other components–that had made AIDS a manageable disease in developed countries, was unaffordable at $10-$15,000 a year for the people living on the edge in poor countries.
All this changed when Brazil decided enough was enough and ensured that virtually every AIDS patient in the country was given the triple ART therapy free. Brazil cast-off all the arguments against poor countries treating AIDS; fragile health systems, uneducated populace and the most controversial — expensive medication. In 1998, its government began making copies of brand-name drugs, producing some for less than a fraction of the original costs. Taking on corporate pharmaceutical conglomerates, Brazil showed the world that multinational drug companies had kept “the price of antiretroviral drugs needlessly out of reach of the vast majority of the worlds population.” (NYT 2001) Leading by example, it demonstrated that sharing health tech could save countless lives.
And yet again, as we are faced with an even more acute crisis, it is surprising that the world has delayed acting on this instance, despite the benefit of hindsight. Fortunately, on Wednesday 5th May, the world heaved a sigh of relief as President Joe Biden announced his support for a proposal by India and South Africa to waive global trade rules on intellectual property for Covid-19 vaccine technology. The move marks a near-climactic culmination in a race against time to save human civilization.
For, as the number of COVID-19 cases in most western countries see a steady decline, India is experiencing a tsunamic resurgence of the coronavirus. Hospitals across India are running out of oxygen and basic medical supplies, while crematoriums are working round the clock to accommodate dead bodies as they pile up. With over 3 lakh new infections and close to 3,500 deaths every day, India now accounts for over a third of global COVID-19 cases.
In this scenario, it is only natural that India and the world awaits–perhaps, the only solution that holds hope against the pandemic—vaccines. A single company in India was due to provide nearly 1/3 of the global vaccines. Given the now-overwhelming domestic urgency to inoculate, India (itself facing acute shortage) has decided to ban further vaccine exports. Thus, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are now scrambling for vaccines against the virus, which is mutating faster than ever.
Amidst this doomsday-like scenario, the debate over vaccine patents is rather baffling. For now, the only unquestionable path out of the pandemic is vaccinating as many people as quickly as possible. Yet, sadly, the patent waiver for the Covid-19 vaccine is being strongly contended.
Just last week, tech giant and one of the deep pockets backing Curevac, Bill Gates, invited criticism when he answered with a hard “No” to sharing Covid-19 vaccine intellectual property rights with developing countries like India. While Gates cited security issues and expenses in sharing the vaccine technology, critics believe it is pure profit motives that direct his response.. There are some opposing the waiver; the maximum opposition naturally coming from big pharma giants. Undoubtedly, manufacturers spend a lot of time and money developing new drugs and are worried about losing profits, opening the market to counterfeit production and demotivating pharmaceutical firms who would be less likely to want to develop new vaccines in the future.
While the concerns are not entirely misplaced, and innovation and profits must not be disregarded, it is imperative to bear in mind the unprecedented situation facing humanity and indeed, for the global economy in the long run – just like HIV did two decades back. Further, there are huge government grants made out to the manufacturers, and part of the innovation is directly funded by government budgets, in effect tax payers.
The developed world must aid and accelerate vaccine manufacturing around the world. This is not a debate of purpose over profit. The framing of the narrative along this zero-sum framework for far too long has become an excuse for putting aside purpose from business. There is a need for concerted action to encourage sharing of progress in research and development and to convince the world that health needs must go beyond commercial interests. Decision-making in boardrooms must consciously reference corporate responsibility and purpose. At the same time, concrete steps must be taken to make markets reward responsible businesses. Until that happens, purpose has to be pushed forth, even thrust upon, to inject it into profit.
(Srikumar Misra is an entrepreneur and founder of Milk Mantra. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of Financial Express Online.)