Big Pharma Refuses to Lift Patents on the Covid-19 Vaccines the World Desperately Needs

Doing so may be the only chance of ending the pandemic

Amy Martyn
Future Human
Published in
7 min readMar 31, 2021


The silhouette of a vaccine shot hovering over dark silhouettes of people from various age groups.
Photo: japatino/Moment/Getty Images

On one side are the leaders of 57 nations, the Pope, and a coalition of nursing unions all over the world. On the other are the executives of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical corporations. At issue is an idea that may be the only chance of ending the Covid-19 pandemic — and also takes aim at the drug industry’s core business model.

The dividing question: Should Covid-19 vaccines remain the intellectual property of drug companies?

In October 2020, India and South Africa submitted a petition asking that the World Trade Organization waive the intellectual property rules relating to Covid-19 that currently restrict nations from manufacturing their own versions of any patented Covid-19 vaccines and drugs without a voluntary license deal.

Since then, Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson have all announced Covid vaccine breakthroughs. But access to the vaccines remains elusive in most of the world. Wealthy nations, such as Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Chile, Israel, and countries in the European Union represent only 16% of the world’s population but have secured 60% of available Covid-19 vaccines. Experts have said that the developing world may not have widespread access to any Covid-19 vaccine until 2024. When Future Human asked why, the drug industry’s international lobby group could not give an answer.

“Go and talk to COVAX,” said Abigail Jones, spokesperson for the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), a lobbying group. COVAX is a World Health Organization program that, in partnership with a vaccine charity called Gavi, is supposed to provide 2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to poor countries by the end of 2021.

The pharmaceutical industry describes COVAX as a success story. “COVAX started rolling out three weeks ago, and already 31 million vaccines have arrived in 51 countries,” added Jones.

But a report sent to the board of Gavi, obtained by the news agency Reuters last year, described the COVAX program as likely to result in failure because of…