Protect People, Not Patents | Sojourners

Protect People, Not Patents

People with breathing problems due to COVID-19 wait to receive oxygen support for free at a Sikh temple in Ghaziabad, India on April 27, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

When I received my second vaccine shot, it felt like a dose of hope. I likened this overwhelming sense of gratitude and relief to receiving a shot of vibranium, the rare, super-powered metal from Wakanda in my favorite Marvel movie, Black Panther.

Here in the United States, the supply of COVID-19 vaccines is now plentiful. In fact, this nation moved so aggressively to ensure enough vaccine for its own people that the ONE campaign estimated “the federal government has secured 550 million more doses than it needs to cover every American.” Given this national surplus, the main barrier to defeating the virus in the U.S. is vaccine skepticism. For those of us who have been fortunate enough to receive the vaccine, we must pay it forward by working to persuade everyone who can safely take the vaccine to do so.

But in many other parts of the world, it’s a different story. While almost 43 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one COVID-19 shot, few other nations are anywhere as close. Overall, only 7.4 percent of the world’s population has had at least one dose of vaccine. Meanwhile, the global numbers of new cases and deaths have both risen in recent weeks, with reported cases recently passing 800,000 cases per day, an unfathomable record-high for the pandemic.

In India, where just under 9 percent of the population has received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, a massive wave of infections and deaths is currently overwhelming the nation’s hospitals and crematoriums. On April 1, the world’s second most populous country had 469 COVID-19 daily deaths; on April 28, India had more than 3,600 daily deaths; experts predict India’s trajectory will continue to worsen and warn that the true death count is 5 to 10 times what’s being reported.

Jayakumar Christian, the former national director of World Vision India, shared with me earlier this week via email that it “has been difficult to live in the midst of so much grief and fear, funerals and a deep sense of hopelessness both in relation to the pandemic and neglect by the administration.” Though Christian recounted numerous inspiring ways he has seen the church in India work to care for their communities amid this surge, he implored me to pray for healing in his nation.

In South Africa, which has the highest number of COVID-19 cases on the African continent, fewer than 300,000 people — just 0.5 percent of the country’s population — has been vaccinated. Craig Stewart, who serves as the director of The Warehouse, an organization based in Cape Town that equips local churches to advocate for justice, shared with me this week that they “have lost friends and colleagues and we have experienced neighborhoods facing long term and complex trauma.” Like many others in South Africa, Stewart is concerned about the country’s lack of progress in vaccinating its population. “While there have been internal capacity and planning issues,” he told me, “the biggest challenge for South Africa has been gaining access to sufficient vaccine supply given that some countries and companies are prioritizing profit over the common good and hoarding supply and production.”

It is painful to hear these things from my friends and partners — people I have worked with when I served at World Vision and currently partner with through Sojourners. It is painful to know that here in the U.S., some states have vaccines that are going unused when vaccine shortages exist around the world.

At the end of Black Panther, King T’Challa decides vibranium cannot be hoarded and used purely for one nation’s health and security; it must be shared to ensure the health and security of the entire world. This is the lesson we must take to heart right now: Vaccine formulas and technology must be shared to ensure the health and security of the entire world. As Christians, we must use our voices and influence to work tirelessly to ensure that vaccines are available to everyone across our increasingly interconnected and interdependent human family.

Solving this vast level of global vaccine inequity will be challenging, but there are things our government can and must do to help. Thankfully, the Biden administration has made commitments this week to taking some actions to help India, including removing a restriction on exports of raw materials used in vaccine production, supplying therapeutics, rapid test kits, ventilators, and personal protective gear. Perhaps most importantly, the president intends to make up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine available to other countries, including India, once federal regulators declare the doses safe. Unfortunately, it could take time for that to happen, and 60 million doses is a tiny fraction of the need both in India and elsewhere.

However, one of the biggest constraints against vaccine equity are the World Trade Organization rules that protect pharmaceutical companies’ intellectual property, thus giving these private companies monopoly control over how many doses of their vaccine get produced. Though more than 100 nations support temporarily waiving some of these rules in order to make it easier for developing nations to produce their own supply of vaccine, the U.S. government — under pressure from the pharmaceutical companies — presently remains firmly opposed.

Protecting pharmaceutical companies’ profits rather than ensuring there’s enough and rapid access to the vaccine for the whole world is, first and foremost, morally indefensible. It’s also unfair when we consider, as many have pointed out, that public funding played a major role in subsidizing the research and development that went into creating the majority of COVID-19 vaccines.

But protecting pharmaceutical profits doesn’t even make sense from a practical standpoint: The more the virus has an opportunity to circulate and copy itself, the more it mutates, and every mutation is another opportunity for a stronger variant to emerge. If we don’t get the virus under control throughout the whole world, it’s very possible that a mutation will emerge that makes the virus resistant to the vaccines that have thus far provided so much hope to people in the countries lucky enough to have enough doses.

Without adequate funding and changes to global patent policy, we risk further seeing a system of vaccine apartheid, in which wealthy nations hoard vaccines and pharmaceutical companies hoard patents while many low-income and middle-income countries face a resurgence of the virus as they scramble to immunize their populations. We have the power to avert this mounting travesty but it will take a transformation in social and political will and the bold pressure and leadership from church and faith-based organization leaders. This will require a scale of investment into initiatives such as the Global COVAX Initiative (to which the Biden Administration has pledged $4 billion) that mirrors the kind of bold leadership our government provided in early 2000s to combat and reverse the HIV/AIDS pandemic through the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which was made possible due to a great deal of public pressure that galvanized broad bipartisan support. Sojourners has joined the People’s Vaccine Alliance, a growing coalition of political, civic, and religious leaders that has been calling for universal vaccine access since October. The coalition is now working to convince the Biden Administration to reverse its current position on patents and join over 100 other nations who support a temporary waiver within the World Trade Organization TRIPS provision to enable countries to expand the safe production of vaccines in many of the places that need it most.

But the most compelling argument remains the humanitarian one: We have a moral imperative to help save lives. This imperative is embedded in the very mandates and ethics of our Christian faith: to whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48). Or as the Apostle Paul so poetically puts it, we must show equal concern for another because when one part of the body suffers, all parts suffer with it (1 Corinthians 12:26). Ensuring people around the world have access to life-saving vaccines is the only way that we will truly defeat COVID-19 and co-create a new global normal that affirms the sacredness of every human life and protects human dignity.