Boston College Law School, along with the Schiller Institute’s Global Public Health and the Common Good program, sponsored a panel on international COVID-19 vaccine equity on January 26. The speakers included Dr. Phillip Landrigan from the Schiller Institute and Dr. Lisa Forman from the University of Toronto School of Public Health.
As part of her first week as BC Law's new Dean, Odette Lineau opened the presentation, followed by a discussion moderated by Katharine Young, BC Law's Associate Dean for Faculty and Global Programs.
Dr. Phillip Landrigan, the first speaker, has experience as both a pediatrician and a member of multiple vaccination campaigns, such as the CDC’s campaign to eradicate smallpox. Due to a COVID-19 infection, he was present at the panel via Zoom and commented that he believed his ability to speak while sick with COVID was due to his three doses of the vaccine.
Dr. Landrigan’s talk focused on the impacts of vaccination and explained why vaccine inequity is a problem for many countries. He introduced many statistics, including that the COVID mortality rate has dropped by 90% in countries where the vaccine was effectively distributed. He also highlighted the disparity between Americans receiving their third and fourth doses of the vaccine while citizens of less wealthy countries are struggling to get access to a first or second dose.
Finally, he noted the important elements of a successful vaccination campaign. According to Landrigan, government funding and legal access mechanisms such as vaccine treaties, outreach to isolated or rural communities, or cultural appeals to low-vaccination-rate populations are some of the most important parts of a vaccine campaign. Funding and access laws are areas where many developing countries’ efforts are lacking.
The main speaker, Lisa Forman, is an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in Toronto. She is an expert in the right to health under international human rights law, especially access to COVID-19 medication.
Forman is from South Africa and did her graduate work there on retro-antiviral campaigns to prevent the spread of HIV. She drew similarities between the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa and the current struggle to access COVID-19 vaccines in many developing countries.
According to Forman, the main reason for the disparity in vaccine supply between wealthy and developing countries is a lack of ability to produce vaccines because intellectual property rights allow pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna to refuse to share how to make their vaccines. Because these companies are located in wealthy nations, they typically sell most of their doses to their nations’ governments, leaving developing countries with no way to purchase vaccines or make their own.
Forman says the answer is for governments to circumvent intellectual property rights specifically for COVID vaccines and treatments. The World Trade Organization (WTO) allowed countries to waive these rights with the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver; developing countries can now bypass patent laws to make enough of their own COVID vaccines to decrease shortages.
The pharmaceutical companies that make vaccines are strongly opposed to having their patent rights potentially waived and have challenged governments to try and stop them from supporting the TRIPS waiver. Forman described how some wealthy countries, like Canada, Japan, and members of the European Union, oppose the waiver due to fear of potential economic repercussions.
Many of the countries opposing the TRIPS waiver instead point to COVAX, an initiative that takes medical supplies and monetary donations from countries and uses them to distribute vaccines and treatments to developing countries. According to Forman, COVAX has not and will not receive enough donations to properly address vaccine inequity, so this solution will not be enough.
Forman finished the discussion by taking questions, mainly about specific countries and how to best address their challenges in distributing vaccines. She acknowledged that there are many contributing factors that the waivers do not address, such as cultural opposition to vaccination and a lack of resources or funding to make vaccines.
The panel ended on a positive note as Forman reminded the audience of overall positive global vaccination trends and the hope that the already internationally recognized right to life and health will soon come to include vital medications such as the COVID-19 vaccine.