Morality and Law
Vaccine as Global Commons

The race for a coronavirus vaccine has important symbolic political goals for the states engaged in it. The state that’s the first to create a safe and effective vaccine (with an emphasis on both of these aspects) will receive obvious geopolitical prestige and will appear as a kind of “saviour of the world” — not just figuratively, but in the literal sense, writes Oleg Barabanov, Programme Director of the Valdai Club.

Almost every day there are news reports around the world on the progress of the development of a coronavirus vaccine. The media address various possible means of creating it, and discuss working methods, and whether or not the usual process of clinical trials may be accelerated. At the same time, the race for the vaccine has actually begun. This competition is being held both at the corporate level, between various biological laboratories and pharmaceutical companies, and at the political level — between individual states. It is important to everyone who will be the first. Thus, in a way, this race for the vaccine stylistically resembles a classic arms race.

For the states engaged in this race, it obviously has important symbolic political goals. The state that’s the first to create a safe and effective vaccine (with an emphasis on both of these aspects) will receive obvious geopolitical prestige and will appear as a kind of “saviour of the world” — not just figuratively, but in the literal sense.

The same logic can be applied to pharmaceutical companies and laboratories. But here the “splendour of victory” in the race for the vaccine has a very distinct financial dimension, in addition to any symbolic significance. Because for them, the race for the vaccine is also the race for a big profit. First, the overall global image of the winning company will skyrocket. It will become a household name, it will be considered (and rightly so) the real “saviour of the world”. And this, in accordance with the understandable logic of consumer behaviour, will lead to an increase in sales of all its other medicine and products. Let us agree that buying any pills from the “saviour of the world”, and not from its competitors, can become a psychological priority for the consumer at a subconscious level. They saved the world, they made the Vaccine, so they are the best, and perhaps the best in everything.

But besides this general PR effect on the growth of all sales of the winning company, there are understandable expectations about the growth of its profit from the sale of the coronavirus vaccine itself. And here there are some historical examples of what kind of business approach is used. Usually, when a new medicine or vaccine appears for a new dangerous disease, its first batches on the market are very expensive. That was the case with medicine used to treat HIV/AIDS, with many cancer treatments, etc. Later, as the market becomes saturated and scaled, and mass production is established, the price decreases, but it still remains significantly expensive and often inaccessible to the poorest patients. In some places, the state helps patients, while in others (especially in developing countries) external humanitarian aid and charity campaigns play a role. But in general, the problem of access to new effective and safe medications still remains, and the price barrier for many becomes unsustainable.

Will this particular business logic be implemented in the case of a coronavirus vaccine? This question now appears to be very important, perhaps the second most important after the development of the vaccine itself. The problem of access to the vaccine and its price are becoming key indicators of the effectiveness of the fight against coronavirus. On the one hand, given that the scale of the market is already at its maximum possible scale level (almost the entire population of the Earth), global public pressure could lead to the initial price of the vaccine not being prohibitively high. Again, in some countries, the state can cover the cost of its purchase; charitable foundations will help the poorest countries, both through the WHO and other channels. But in any case, regardless of who pays for the vaccine (the consumer himself or external intermediaries: the state or foundations), this does not negate the tangible profit from the patented vaccine for the manufacturer and patent holder. Only because we will deal with the largest of all possible pharmaceutical markets on Earth.

On the one hand, this is natural. Nobody has cancelled the laws of the market economy, which already addresses matters such as profits, intellectual property and patents. But on the other hand, due to the global significance of the vaccine problem throughout the world, in recent weeks a discussion has begun to unfold in favour of a different approach.

Among political leaders, the first such approach was voiced by French President Emmanuel Macron. Since the beginning of May, he has openly declared that the vaccine against coronavirus should become a global public good. And in this regard, universal access to the vaccine should be provided to the entire population of the Earth. Macron repeated the same idea in his speech at the annual World Health Assembly, the governing body of the WHO, which was held via videoconference on May 18-19.

There are two possible ways in which events can develop, logically. The first is a traditional one and is based on charity. To ensure universal access to the vaccine, the poor countries will be helped by the rich ones (both through interstate assistance and through private humanitarian funds), while the non-poor will pay for themselves. Another concept is more radical, and even revolutionary in its own way. It is linked to the concept of a global commons, a broader and more comprehensive expression of the idea of global public goods.

The concept of a global commons began in the environmentalist movement, but has sense gradually started to be applied to social issues. The Valdai Club has previously turned to its analysis. And one of the social aspects of the global commons is the concept of “open innovation”. Its essence is that in order to overcome inequality in the world and roll out universal access to the latest technologies, which have key social significance at the global level, the patent protection system of innovation should be changed, and that the altered system should be extended to the most important objects of intellectual property for the whole of mankind, so-called “Open free patents”. Accordingly, worldwide free access to these open patents and innovations, including the deployment of their own production on their basis, should become one of the mechanisms for overcoming global development inequality.

Usually, the concept of a global commons is used primarily in the political spirit, and is in one way or another connected with the restriction of the sovereignty of states with regards to environmental matters and other issues of global importance. And in this context, the arguments for this concept have perhaps already entered the mainstream political discourse. As for the corporate dimension, here the concept of a global commons is far from advanced, and the same “open innovations” have not yet progressed beyond purely speculative constructions. The maximum that has been achieved at a practical level is the expansion of the same charity on the part of companies. But open free patents are still, by and large, a utopia (with the exception of individual start-ups working on the basis of “innovation sharing” or “knowledge sharing”).

And here it is extremely important to emphasise that in the May 19, 2020 resolution of the World Health Assembly regarding the development of a coronavirus vaccine, the principle of open innovation is mentioned clearly, even with remarks, nuances and reservations, but nonetheless. Paragraph 7.12 of the resolution calls on WHO Member States “to collaborate to promote both private sector and government-funded research and development, including open innovation, across all relevant domains, on measures necessary to contain and end the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular on vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics, and to share relevant information with the WHO”.

Does this mention of open innovation in the resolution of the World Health Assembly mean only a formal tribute to the emerging fashionable term, but in fact it will not go beyond large-scale charity to ensure access to the vaccine? Or are we witnessing a fundamentally new approach to the entire global patent system? Is there now anything more important to this world than a coronavirus vaccine, which could be the number one candidate for open innovation and an open free patent?

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.