A radical idea for forcing vaccine companies to share knowledge with the world


ILLUSTRATION/Mother Jones/Dean Baker

Biden’s patent waiver plan could unleash vaccines globally, says economist Dean Baker. If companies don’t comply, there’s another option.

As the world grapples with the devastation of the coronavirus, one thing is clear: The United States simply wasn’t prepared. Despite repeated warnings from infectious disease experts over the years, we lacked essential beds, equipment, and medication; public health advice was confusing; and our leadership offered no clear direction while sidelining credible health professionals and institutions. Infectious disease experts agree that it’s only a matter of time before the next pandemic hits, and that one could be even more deadly. So how do we fix what COVID-19 has shown was broken? In this Mother Jones series, we’re asking experts from a wide range of disciplines one question: What are the most important steps we can take to make sure we’re better prepared next time around?

As the coronavirus continues to rage around the world, COVID-19 vaccine patents have become a life-or-death issue. On May 5, the Biden administration announced that it will support a World Trade Organization resolution to lift pharmaceutical companies’ patent protections on COVID-19 vaccines. It’s part of a broader shift away from Trump’s “America First” vaccine strategy, which prioritized inoculating Americans first by stockpiling doses in the US rather than exporting a surplus to other countries. If other powerful trading blocs follow suit, global sharing of vaccine production know-how could speed up the global vaccination effort and, ultimately, bring the pandemic to an end.

Even so, current forecasts predict that, based on current rates, it could be years before populations around the world are vaccinated. In India, which has seen a deadly recent surge, only around 2.6 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. In Brazil, another hard-hit country, around seven percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. On the African continent, that figure is less than one percent. In the United States, by contrast, 35 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. 

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