Back in May, with only 6 percent of his country’s population vaccinated against COVID, Bolivian Foreign Minister Rogelio Mayta appealed to the Canadian government to provide a compulsory license for the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
A compulsory license is a mechanism, often referred to as a “safety valve” for emergencies, which allows a government to release patents for the production of vaccines. The patent holder usually receives a royalty or fee, so they are still guaranteed to make a profit.
Any country which has issued a patent to a vaccine manufacturer can issue a compulsory license to another country, facilitating production by companies in that country. The basis for issuing such a license is public need.
There was a clear public need in Bolivia. In addition to the low vaccination rate, COVID cases in the country were beginning to spike in May, with daily new cases increasing from around 1200 at the end of April to over 3000 by the beginning of June. By comparison, during the same period Canada’s daily new cases tumbled from over 8000 to less than 2000. To put these numbers into context, Canada’s population is nearly three-and-a-half times that of Bolivia.
Around the same time that Bolivia requested the compulsory license, the Canadian government was issuing press releases trumpeting the Trudeau government’s ongoing contributions to global vaccination. On the very same day that Foreign Minister Mayta submitted his request, Global Affairs Canada quoted Karina Gould, Minister of International Development: “As a global community, we must work to ensure that those most vulnerable, including women and children, have access to vaccinations to keep them healthy wherever they live. COVID-19 has demonstrated that viruses do not know borders. Our health here in Canada depends on the health of everyone, everywhere. Together, we must build a more resilient planet.”
Noble words, indeed, but sadly not backed up with similarly honourable action.
You see, having waited five months for the Canadian government to issue a compulsory license and allow production of the J&J vaccine, Bolivia has still not received a single dose.
The problem appears to be reluctance by Trudeau and Co. to infringe on Big Pharma’s intellectual property rights. The government seems to think it is better to have vaccines produced by a small number of manufacturers, then purchased by the Canadian public at a high profit, so that the government can then magnanimously donate them to poor countries like Bolivia. From a capitalist point of view, it’s win-win – Big Pharma makes its money and the pro-corporate government gets to “vax-wash” away its otherwise terrible foreign policy reputation in the region.
But for the people of Bolivia, it’s a disaster. According to official figures, 19,000 people have died of COVID to date. As a percentage of the population, that’s more than double the rate in Canada.
This situation is hardly unique to Canada or Bolivia – it’s a reality that is wreaking havoc on countries in the Global South. Vaccine inequity is a result of capitalism, and it is a tragedy that can be avoided. In response, communist parties around the world issued a joint call in April for the abolition of intellectual property rights (patents) on all COVID-19 vaccines and treatment formulations.
We need to force the Canadian government to heed that call.
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