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Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on March 4, 2021.

LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images

Governments around the world are embroiled in a debate about a proposal to waive the patents on the leading COVID-19 vaccines, so that more countries can start producing the lifesaving shots.

The idea got a huge boost last week when the Biden administration came out in favour of the move, which was first proposed by India and South Africa. The European Union is considering it, while one of its biggest members, Germany, is outright opposed. Here in Canada, the Trudeau government has positioned itself firmly on the fence.

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The debate is consuming a lot of political oxygen. And that’s a shame, because bickering over a patent waiver misses the point.

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The real issue boils down to a single statistic: As of April 9, people living in the 67 poorest countries had received just 0.2 per cent of all the vaccines administered in the world. The populations of the wealthiest countries, such as Canada, the United States and Britain, had received 87 per cent.

“On average in high-income countries, almost one in four people has received a vaccine,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, said in April. “In low-income countries, it’s one in more than 500. Let me repeat that: one in four versus one in 500.”

Barring high levels of vaccine hesitancy, many wealthy countries will have fully vaccinated their populations by the end of 2021. Poor countries, according to an analysis done by the Economist Intelligence Unit, will have to wait until 2024 to achieve mass immunization, “if it happens at all.”

For wealthy countries, that’s a moral failure. It’s also a failure to protect their self-interest. Standing idly by while billions of people continue to catch and transmit COVID-19 will prolong the pandemic and provide a crucible for new, possibly more deadly variants.

If a temporary suspension of the patents held by Pfizer, Moderna and other vaccine manufacturers could bring the pandemic to an end in every country much sooner, it would be a no-brainer. The moral argument for doing so would be too strong to resist, and counterarguments about the consequences of not protecting the intellectual property of drug companies, such as stifling innovation, wouldn’t fly at all.

After all, both Moderna and AstraZeneca took billions in taxpayer dollars from U.S. public agencies to develop their vaccines, while Pfizer received a US$1.95-billion advance payment against future purchases. Pfizer expects sales of US$26-billion this year for its vaccine, while Moderna says it will hit US$19.2-billion.

But the waiver proposal in fact holds no promise of quickly ending vaccine inequity. Even if the patents – in particular for the messenger RNA ones produced by Pfizer and Moderna – were handed to poorer countries, it would be a long-term solution, at best.

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The mRNA vaccines are discouragingly complex to make. They require dedicated equipment, high-level quality-control measures and up-to-date technological know-how. Pfizer says its shot alone needs 280 different materials and components sourced from 19 countries; some of the components have their own patents that would also have to be waived. Having the formula for an mRNA vaccine and being able to produce it are two very different things.

There is also the fact that the waiver is dependent on a consensus among World Trade Organization member countries, and that’s not on the horizon. Months of negotiations could easily fail, and the world would be no further ahead in the battle to provide vaccines to poor countries.

If the U.S. and other wealthy democracies want to help end vaccine inequity, using their combined economic muscle to organize bulk purchases of vaccines at negotiated prices and delivering them to the many countries that need them this year and next would be a smarter move than a contentious and heavy-handed patent waiver.

There are currently 15 vaccines approved for full or emergency use in countries around the world. One analysis of projections estimated that, in a perfect world, manufacturers will produce a combined 12 billion doses in 2021. If that pace is met and continues, companies will have made enough doses to fully vaccinate every person on the planet by the end of 2022, and then some.

The world appears to have an adequate and growing supply of vaccines. What is lacking is the will to make sure they get to every corner of the globe as soon as possible.

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