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.
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.”
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.