In delivering vaccines, pharmaceutical companies aided by monumental government investments have given humanity a miraculous shot at liberation from the worst pandemic in a century.
But wealthy countries have captured an overwhelming share of the benefit. Only 0.3 percent of the vaccine doses administered globally have been given in the 29 poorest countries, home to about 9 percent of the world’s population.
Vaccine manufacturers assert that a fix is already at hand as they aggressively expand production lines and contract with counterparts around the world to yield billions of additional doses. Each month, 400 million to 500 million doses of the vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson are now being produced, according to an American official with knowledge of global supply.
But the world is nowhere close to having enough. About 11 billion shots are needed to vaccinate 70 percent of the world’s population, the rough threshold needed for herd immunity, researchers at Duke University estimate. Yet, so far, only a small fraction of that has been produced. While global production is difficult to measure, the analytics firm Airfinity estimates the total so far at 1.7 billion doses.
dangerous new variants emerge, requiring booster shots and reformulated vaccines, demand could dramatically increase, intensifying the imperative for every country to lock up supply for its own people.
The only way around the zero-sum competition for doses is to greatly expand the global supply of vaccines. On that point, nearly everyone agrees.
But what is the fastest way to make that happen? On that question, divisions remain stark, undermining collective efforts to end the pandemic.
Some health experts argue that the only way to avert catastrophe is to force drug giants to relax their grip on their secrets and enlist many more manufacturers in making vaccines. In place of the existing arrangement — in which drug companies set up partnerships on their terms, while setting the prices of their vaccines — world leaders could compel or persuade the industry to cooperate with more companies to yield additional doses at rates affordable to poor countries.
Those advocating such intervention have focused on two primary approaches: waiving patents to allow many more manufacturers to copy existing vaccines, and requiring the pharmaceutical companies to transfer their technology — that is, help other manufacturers learn to replicate their products.
more than 100 countries in asking the W.T.O. to partially set aside vaccine patents.
But the European Union has signaled its intent to oppose waivers and support only voluntary tech transfers, essentially taking the same position as the pharmaceutical industry, whose aggressive lobbying has heavily shaped the rules in its favor.
Some experts warn that revoking intellectual property rules could disrupt the industry, slowing its efforts to deliver vaccines — like reorganizing the fire department amid an inferno.
“We need them to scale up and deliver,” said Simon J. Evenett, an expert on trade and economic development at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. “We have this huge production ramp up. Nothing should get in the way to threaten it.”
Others counter that trusting the pharmaceutical industry to provide the world with vaccines helped create the current chasm between vaccine haves and have-nots.
The world should not put poorer countries “in this position of essentially having to go begging, or waiting for donations of small amounts of vaccine,” said Dr. Chris Beyrer, senior scientific liaison to the Covid-19 Prevention Network. “The model of charity is, I think, an unacceptable model.”