Global Trends by Martin Khor
Monday 27 July 2009
Poor countries worry about flu vaccine shortage
As the A/H1N1 swine flu virus spreads rapidly worldwide, developing countries are left behind in the race to get scarce vaccines. Some are making moves to produce their own vaccines even if these are patented by the rich countries’ companies.
Developing countries are increasingly concerned they will be not have access to vaccines for the A/H1N1 flu virus (popularly known as swine flu virus) because of the great demand for them and the limited amounts that can be quickly made.
The vaccine is made
using parts of the virus itself, and only hundreds of millions of doses
can be made in a year. However, governments in developed have already
booked almost all the doses that can be produced. For example,
According to the World Health Organisation, a fully licensed vaccine may not be ready until the end of this year. By that time the pandemic will be worse than now.
It is reported that
some governments are already preparing to start vaccination even before
the vaccine is fully cleared for safety. The first human trials in
the world have already started in
As swine flu continues to spread rapidly across the world, there is an “ugly scandal brewing over the vaccine,” according to an AP press report.
It quotes experts as predicting that during a global epidemic, governments are under tremendous pressure to protect their own citizens first before allowing companies to export doses of vaccine out of the country.
to Michael Osterholm, director of the
is estimated that 70 percent of the world's flu vaccines are made in
Two articles in the British papers last week show the looming problem. First was a report that security guards are guarding supplies of Tamiflu, which is a drug that can treat symptoms of flu, because of fears that worried citizens would break into the warehouses that stock them.
Second was a report of citizens protesting that a drug company was making billions of dollars of profits from selling flu-related drugs at high prices, thus cashing in on the increased demand.
latest estimates are that 700 people have died worldwide from he virus,
and over 100,000 have been infected. A scare recently swept the
While the disease is spreading very rapidly, fortunately swine flu is relatively mild, and medical treatment is not needed in many cases. However health experts fear that the virus could mutate and become more dangerous.
Developing countries are being left out in the battle to get the vaccines, which is too expensive for most of these countries to pre-book. The companies making the vaccines have also probably applied for patents that block others from making them.
Thus even if a developing country has the technology to make the vaccines, it could be prevented from doing so by intellectual property.
24 July, the Presidents of
"It would be very advantageous to propitiate a kind of lifting or suspension of the patents law because the WHO has recognized that we're dealing with an epidemic," said Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, speaking at the summit of Mercosur, the regional trade grouping.
said that failing to act could mean "condemning millions of people
to death" while suspending the patents law could save millions
of lives. She said that laboratories cannot keep up with the world
demand for vaccines.
The developing countries are well within their rights to produce or import generic versions of vaccines, even if these vaccines are patented. The intellectual property agreement in the World Trade Organisation allows governments to issue compulsory licenses for this purpose.
that have made use of such licenses to produce medicines to treat HIV-AIDs
and other diseases include
It would not be the first time, if countries decide to issue licenses to companies to produce or obtain generic versions of the flu vaccines.