poses universal risks by allowing variants to take hold, forcing the world into an endless cycle of pharmaceutical catch-up.

“It needs to be global leaders functioning as a unit, to say that vaccine is a form of global security,” said Dr. Rebecca Weintraub, a global health expert at Harvard Medical School. She suggested that the G7, the group of leading economies, could lead such a campaign and finance it when the members convene in England next month.

Pfizer expects to sell $26 billion worth of Covid vaccines this year; Moderna forecasts that its sales of Covid vaccines will exceed $19 billion for 2021.

History also challenges industry claims that blanket global patent rights are a requirement for the creation of new medicines. Until the mid-1990s, drug makers could patent their products only in the wealthiest markets, while negotiating licenses that allowed companies in other parts of the world to make generic versions.

Even in that era, drug companies continued to innovate. And they continued to prosper even with the later waivers on H.I.V. drugs.

“At the time, it rattled a lot of people, like ‘How could you do that? It’s going to destroy the pharmaceutical industry,’” recalled Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic. “It didn’t destroy them at all. They continue to make billions of dollars.”

Leaders in the wealthiest Western nations have endorsed more equitable distribution of vaccines for this latest scourge. But the imperative to ensure ample supplies for their own nations has won out as the virus killed hundreds of thousands of their own people, devastated economies, and sowed despair.

The drug companies have also promised more support for poorer nations. AstraZeneca’s vaccine has been the primary supply for Covax, and the company says it has sold its doses at a nonprofit price.

stumbled, falling short of production targets. And producing the new class of mRNA vaccines, like those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, is complicated.

Where pharmaceutical companies have struck deals with partners, the pace of production has frequently disappointed.

“Even with voluntary licensing and technology transfer, it’s not easy to make complex vaccines,” said Dr. Krishna Udayakumar, director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.

Much of the global capacity for vaccine manufacturing is already being used to produce other lifesaving inoculations, he added.

But other health experts accuse major pharmaceutical companies of exaggerating the manufacturing challenges to protect their monopoly power, and implying that developing countries lack the acumen to master sophisticated techniques is “an offensive and a racist notion,” said Matthew Kavanagh, director of the Global Health Policy and Politics Initiative at Georgetown University.

With no clear path forward, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala, the W.T.O. director-general, expressed hope that the Indian and South African patent-waiver proposal can be a starting point for dialogue.

“I believe we can come to a pragmatic outcome,” she said. “The disparity is just too much.”

Peter S. Goodman reported from London, Apoorva Mandavilli from New York, Rebecca Robbins from Bellingham, Wash., and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels. Noah Weiland contributed reporting from New York.

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