A global coalition of more than 350 trade unions is renewing calls for politicians to waive the patents on Covid vaccines.
Failure to do so, they claim, will exacerbate supply chain crises and cause “economic self-harm.”
It comes as the World Trade Organization (WTO) meets in Geneva to try to reach an agreement.
Some critics argue that accelerating vaccine rollout is more complicated than simply waiving patents.
The dilemma being discussed at the WTO meeting is how to ensure the most widespread and equitable method of vaccinating the entire world against coronavirus and ending the pandemic. If this is accomplished, it will allow for the removal of restrictions that have hampered economic growth.
Last week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that there could be a $5.3tn (£3.9tn) cost to the global economy over the next five years, if the world fails to close the massive gap in vaccination rates between advanced economies and poorer nations.
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The governments of India and South Africa have led calls from developing economies to relax intellectual property rules governing vaccines and other tools used to combat the pandemic, such as testing equipment.
They believe that doing so will hasten vaccine distribution. The United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, and the European Union are among those who oppose a waiver.
The International Transport Workers’ Federation is leading the trade union coalition (ITF).
“These politicians appear hell-bent on socioeconomic self-harm to further line the pockets of Pfizer, Moderna, and BioNTech billionaires,” says Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the ITWF.
“It’s insane – these leaders are holding the rest of the world’s recovery hostage.”
Supply chain threat
Many of the 11 million workers they represent in 113 countries, according to the coalition, do not have adequate access to vaccines. They warn that if not enough workers are vaccinated, the global transportation system will collapse.
“Global inequality in access to vaccines and treatments poses an existential threat not only to the personal safety of transportation workers, but also to the resilience of supply chains and the reinvigoration of the global economy,” Mr Cotton says.
One reason supply chains are at risk is that only 31% of the world’s 1.4 million seafarers have been immunised.
They play a crucial role in global trade, given that 90% of goods are carried by sea. Without vaccinations, they continue to struggle with restrictions.
This means that more than 100,000 cargo vessel staff remain at sea beyond the duration of their contracts. An estimated 14,000 people have been stuck for over 11 months, according to the Global Maritime Forum.
Developing economies such as the Philippines, Indonesia, India, and Ukraine are major contributors to the global seafarer population. Because of the group’s low level of vaccine rollout, a waiver of intellectual property rules would be especially beneficial.
However, pharmaceutical behemoths argue that simply waiving those rules will not result in a faster rollout. Beyond the formula for the vaccine itself, expanding production necessitates the availability of skills, knowledge, and raw materials.
“Extraordinarily complex” process
Pfizer, which worked with BioNTech to develop its vaccine, says that because it requires a biological process, vaccine production “is extraordinarily complex”, requiring 280 different materials or components from 19 different countries.
In an open letter earlier this year, Pfizer’s chief executive Albert Bourla wrote that the biggest restriction on expanding manufacturing was “scarcity of highly specialised raw materials” – something it has been working hard to tackle. The company says it is continuing to ramp up vaccine production.
This week rival Moderna’s chairman Noubar Afeyan told Associated Press that many requests to share its technology assumed it would struggle to expand capacity, “but in fact we know we can“.
Both companies say they have made considerable efforts to get their vaccines to poorer countries, as well as richer ones.
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Moderna spent $2.5 billion and ten years developing the technology behind its vaccine, whereas Pfizer spent $2 billion before knowing it would be successful.
The European Union believes that intellectual property protection encourages this type of investment, which is why it has opposed a waiver.
“Our goal is to find a pragmatic solution to support the widest and fastest distribution of Covid vaccines that the world urgently needs,” a European Commission spokesperson told the BBC.
It is attempting to collaborate with WTO partners “to improve access to Covid vaccines and therapeutics,” they claim.
Political divide remains
Compulsory licencing of private firms’ technology, in which governments force them to share it under certain conditions, could be one solution.
According to the UK government, it is “playing a leading role in the global effort to create and distribute Covid vaccines” and “will carefully review any proposal submitted” to the WTO.
However, any WTO agreement requires the approval of all 164 members, and many have yet to reveal which side of the debate they support.
As the world’s largest economy, the United States wields considerable power in Geneva. President Biden’s administration supports a waiver and believes negotiations are at a critical juncture, but it is concerned that the meeting will fail to produce the real compromises that it believes are required.
“The US is doing everything in our power to ensure that everyone, both at home and around the world, has access to vaccines because more vaccinations are how we end this pandemic,” a US Trade Representative spokesperson told the BBC.
They went on to say that their efforts at the WTO are just one part of a “comprehensive effort” to assist the developing world.
Trade officials say there are encouraging signs of progress in the talks, but time is running out to reach an agreement before the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference at the end of November.