Free the Vaccine: The Future of COVID-19
Updated: May 25
By Sydney Stevenson
Publicly-funded medicines should be free and accessible to everyone in the world. Recently in the United States, an American pharmaceutical company named Gildead applied to try and secure a monopoly over Remdesivir which was a potential medicine to treat COVID-19. Had this appeal been granted, they would have been able to charge extremely high prices for a drug which could save many lives (Thomas, 2020). While this happened in the United States, concerns have been raised in Canada as well of the potential for private ownership of something that should be made publicly accessible to all. That is why it is essential to understand the importance of access to publicly funded medicines.
This monopoly over health can happen and disproportionately affect places in the world with less access to medicines than we currently have here in Canada. On March 12, 2020 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $192 million would be given to COVID-19 research under the government’s new action plan (Van Evra, 2020). The Canadian government has provided millions of dollars in funding to a firm called AbCellera which works in biotechnology. This firm has partnered with another called Eli Lilly to manufacture a drug for COVID-19 and conduct clinical trials (AbCellera, 2020). Funding of initiatives such as these should result in the public benefitting from its product, rather than private profit. The COVID-19 vaccine needs to be free and accessible to everyone. Fighting to allow access to this vaccine not only protects oneself and others, it protects everyone. If only people who can afford it have access to this vaccine it not only infringes on people's human rights and basic health care, but will have negative effects on public health as a whole.
Vaccines provide protection in two ways. They protect the person who has been vaccinated from getting the disease, but they also prevent something called herd transmission (Weintraub et al., 2020). This is where people who have the disease are transmitting it to others. Reducing the number of people who can have and transmit the disease reduces its spread (Weintraub et al., 2020). Therefore, this moves communities towards achieving herd immunity. In the New England Journal of Medicine, Bill Gates wrote that “governments and industry will need to come to an agreement: during a pandemic, vaccines and antivirals can’t simply be sold to the highest bidder. They should be available and affordable for people who are at the heart of the outbreak and in greatest need. Not only is such distribution the right thing to do, it’s also the right strategy for short-circuiting transmission and preventing future pandemics” (Gates, 3).
Every person and every country in the world has now truly understood the inter-connectedness of the globe today. A global health professor from Kings College in London explains that, “everyone in the world now understands that their health and sheer life can be put at risk by things far on the other side of the world - [something we call] health interdependence” (Pai, 2020). As people become more aware of our effects on each other, we will realize how important it is to care for the health of others. We are living in a time where technology and research for essential medicines has limitless potential, yet many people are not able to access these essential medicines. The UN high-level panel report on access to medicines states, “many face prices that are too high, either for those who are paying out- of-pocket or for health systems at risk of rationing treatments. Availability, affordability and adaptation to specific settings and patient categories remain problematic in many regions and for many populations throughout the world” (UN, 4). As we work to fight for access to essential medicines for all, we must ensure during this critical time that when the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available it is “sustainably priced, available to all, and free at the point of delivery” (FTV, 2020).
COVID-19 has left the world wondering, “how are we as a society going to come out of this pandemic and what challenges will we face?” These challenges will include everything from how to lift the self-quarantine bans as well as how people will go on interacting in crowds, but it will also have massive impacts on a global scale for health and development. The pandemic is causing an infringement on human rights and many fear setbacks in positive health developments particularly in the Global South. In many countries, general health care is becoming much more difficult alongside the pandemic. Basic services such as routine immunizations have been negatively impacted. An article in Forbes explains, “the pandemic has made it incredibly difficult to script an endgame for TB, AIDS and malaria, the “Big Three” killer epidemics” (Pai, 2020). This suggests that support, funding, and care is going to be needed on an even larger scale than normal to protect people in the Global South, yet it is expected that during and after the pandemic, economies will be weakened and development assistance will be at risk (Pai, 2020). Therefore, some people and places are facing further health impacts during this pandemic. Without proper policy management, this may likely lead to fragmentation and fear between nations and people, bringing forth further conflict within the global community. It is essential that solutions are not fragmented by borders, class, and people. We must keep the response to the pandemic inclusive across the globe. We can start this by coming up with solutions for free and inclusive access to the COVID-19 vaccine. It is important that we continue to feel connected to the world and the global human community during and after this time of crisis. It is all too easy to become scared and retreat into a simple bubble. But nothing is that simple, and we as a global community must not forget about each other. Now more than ever, we must start taking care of those next to and far from us -- as though our own lives depended on it.
It is striking how some governments have responded to the crisis with selfishness at the detriment of others outside of their borders, such as hoarding essential medical items. A professor of global health policy at UNC Chapel Hill stated that, “these human rights infringements, compounded by the rise of international divisions, threaten to unravel the post-war system of human rights that has been a bedrock of global health governance since WHO first declared that ‘the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being’ “ (Pai, 2020). This shows us that activism and education about global accessibility to the COVID-19 vaccine is essential. Our systems and institutions, which were already broken to begin with, are in uncharted territory. We need to take matters into our own hands to protect people's health and human rights, and come out of this pandemic stronger and more united than when we entered it.
There are various stakeholders trying to make this mission possible. Universities Allied for Essential Medicines and the Center for Artistic Activism have partnered to create a global movement to free the vaccine for COVID-19. To protect ourselves, families, and the wider global community it is essential that this mission is realized. You can learn more about this campaign and what you can do to help free the vaccine at www.freethevaccine.org
“AbCellera and Lilly to Co-Develop Antibody Therapies for the Treatment of COVID-19.” AbCellera, AbCellera, 12Mar. 2020, www.abcellera.com/news/2020-03-abcellera-and-lilly-codevelopment.
“Final Report.” High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines, UN, Sept. 2016, www.unsgaccessmeds.org/final-report.
“Free the Vaccine for COVID-19.” FTV, Free the Vaccine for COVID19, www.freethevaccine.org/.
Gates, Bill. “Responding to Covid-19 — A Once-in-a-Century Pandemic?” New England Journal of Medicine, 2020, pp. 1–3., doi:10.1056/nejmp2003762.
Pai, Madhukar. “Can We Reimagine Global Health In The Post-Pandemic World?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 6 Apr. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/madhukarpai/2020/04/06/can-we-reimagine-global-health-in-the-post-pandemic-world/#9f59e8d4c221.
Thomas, Katie. “Gilead Withdraws Request for Special Orphan Status on Experimental Virus Treatment.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Mar. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/03/25/health/gilead-coronavirus-orphan-drug.html?fbclid=IwAR3CDMzWkb76CJ1pmlGOP3jb4UR2qzV-uFe9O-PY4CdK7wmk3mV6F22ep_c.
Van Evra, Jennifer. “Vancouver Biotech Firm Gets Big Financial Boost in Its Fight against COVID-19 | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 24 Mar. 2020, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/abcellara-coronavirus-federal-funding-1.5507232.
Weintraub, Rebecca, et al. “A Covid-19 Vaccine Will Need Equitable, Global Distribution.” Harvard Business Review, Harvard University , 20 Apr. 2020, hbr.org/2020/04/a-covid-19-vaccine-will-need-equitable-global-distribution.