As the COVID-19 vaccination gap widens between rich countries and poor countries, the world's leading vaccine makers are once again under pressure to do more to bridge the divide.
In a new report (PDF), Amnesty International says COVID-19 vaccine makers AstraZeneca, BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer have refused to waive intellectual property rights on their shots. By doing so, the companies are "fueling an unprecedented human rights crisis," the group alleges.
With backing from the World Health Organization (WHO), the group launched a campaign aimed at vaccinating 40% of people in low- and lower-middle-income countries by the end of 2021. Waiving IP rights would allow drug manufacturers around the world to supply doses to their local regions, advocates say.
For their part, the vaccine companies maintain that they and their partners are in the best position to produce large amounts of doses. Other companies would need to learn how to scale up their production procedures and compete for scarce raw materials during the global vaccination race, industry representatives have said.
No matter the arguments, the data are clear. In rich countries, 55% of people are fully vaccinated, according to Amnesty International's report. That compares with less than 1% of people in low-income countries. Vaccine makers have delivered 5.76 billion doses worldwide, and just 0.3% have gone to low-income countries so far, the group says.
Meanwhile, Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna are set to collect $130 billion in revenues through next year, Amnesty International says.
"Profits should never come before lives," Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, said in a statement.
Amnesty International is calling on the six companies to deliver 2 billion doses to low- and lower-middle countries before the end of the year. Its campaign has support from WHO and the United Nations' high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet Jeria.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden is set to unveil a plan to vaccinate 70% of the world's population by next September, Amnesty International says. His administration has privately urged Moderna and Pfizer—the leading U.S. mRNA players—to license their shots to make them more available in low- and middle-income countries, The New York Times reports.
As the pressure on the companies ramps back up, Pfizer and BioNTech on Wednesday unveiled an expanded partnership with the U.S. The companies plan to sell another 500 million doses to the U.S. government at a not-for-profit price for donation through 2022.
There's already been one round of debate over the idea of waiving IP rights. But that conversation seems to have passed with a win for the pharmaceutical companies.
After India and South Africa submitted a request to waive COVID-19 vaccine IP rights to the World Trade Organization, the Biden administration came down in favor of the proposal. That led to a backlash within the U.S. biopharma industry, which has long contended strong IP laws foster innovation.