The politics of pandemics

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Even as COVID-19 vaccine candidates make their way through a truncated clinical trial process, politicians are preparing for the next step: securing enough supplies for their countries. And they believe that a global healthcare emergency should be used to re-calibrate existing global rules.

For instance, the Union Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal said that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the inherent weaknesses and inequalities in the global economic and trading system. Speaking at the virtual informal meeting of WTO Ministers, he said the need of the hour is to take effective measures to address the immediate challenges, and also prepare a long-term roadmap on how to reform an ailing and imbalanced global trading system.

While the US, UK, EU, France and other developed nations have resorted to ‘vaccine nationalism’, first favouring vaccines being developed within their jurisdictions and then building stockpiles of multiple vaccines, India and South Africa have proposed a TRIPS waiver of intellectual (IP) on COVID-19 medicines and vaccines, till global herd immunity, is achieved, so that countries with limited manufacturing capacity can access these medical supplies.

One would think that fighting a common foe would unite all armies. But evidently, COVID-19 is not being considered serious enough to share IP so that the virus can be wiped out from every country. Once again, IP has divided the world, with the US, EU refusing to back South Africa and India’s proposal.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to re-build better. At a global and national level, at a public health policy level as well as in terms of corporate strategy

Thus unless these nations have a change of heart, it seems likely that countries which cannot access medicines, diagnostic tools or vaccines for IP reasons will continue to struggle to vaccinate their populations. As a result, there will likely be recurring waves of infection in these countries, which will spill over to other locations as well. The COVID-19 pandemic is thus an opportunity to re-build better. At a global and national level, at a public health policy level as well as in terms of corporate strategy.

Will India make full use of this opportunity? A recent report from JLL titled, “Reimagine the future – Life sciences Perspective,” points out that while there are multiple opportunities for Indian vaccine manufacturing companies considering the knowledge base, cost of production and skilled labour, will the country look beyond COVID-19 and ramp up its R&D spend, which at 0.7 per cent of GDP is one of the lowest among countries with similar aspirations?
For comparison, R&D expenditure as per cent of GDP of South Africa and Kenya is 0.8 per cent, while China’s is two per cent and the US is at 2.7 per cent.

While the government is putting in place a scheme for reducing dependence on China of APIs and key ingredients, there are opportunities in areas like IV fluids, oral drugs, plasma and mAbs, points out the JLL report. So while the worst seems to be behind us, experts are closely tracking the COVID-19 case numbers, especially as we head into the winter and the festival season which will make physical distancing difficult.

While leaders like Goyal make the case for “meaningful and equitable reform” and are urging their peers to “re-imagine the multilateral trading system and fix what has not worked in the last 25 years”, this is an opportunity to fix the gaps in the Indian pharma sector as well.

Public health in pandemic times has become the central issue in all elections across the world. Leaders will be judged on the basis of their response to the pandemic. So free COVID vaccination has become a key electoral promise, be it US President Trump or states like Bihar in India which is also gearing up for elections. A few other state governments followed suit.

Ultimately, the choice to take a ‘first’ generation experimental shot or wait for more evidence might not be an individual’s choice. But what’s good is that finally the government and policymakers will be held responsible for the health of their citizens. And let us hope that they live up to this responsibility.

Viveka Roychowdhury
Editor, Express Pharma

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