Can we end vaccine apartheid by simply being good, caring neighbours ?

A chorus of voices is now calling for an end to "vaccine apartheid", in which rich nations race to protect their citizens from Covid-19 while the virus continues to tear through the developing world.

The heart of the case is sound. Unless the world is vaccinated, millions more people will die - with the vast majority of fatalities in poorer countries. This would, simply, be tragic and wrong.

We can reach that conclusion before even considering the economic argument of preventing the poor becoming even poorer, or the public health concerns created by new variants emerging from the unvaccinated world.

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So that makes the matter of waiving patent protection for the intellectual property behind those vaccines a simple, humanitarian choice, doesn't it?

Not so fast. While the US and World Health Organisation backs a patent waiver, others - including the EU and the UK - think it is a bad idea. They argue that solutions which deny big pharma the rights to their intellectual property run the risk of both being ineffective, and acting as a powerful deterrent to innovation.

Scottish charity leaders have been quick to condemn that position, using the strongest rhetoric. Jamie Livingstone, head of Oxfam Scotland, accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of blocking action to "prevent pharmaceutical company bosses from deciding who lives and who dies globally while their companies pocket billions of dollars".

Dark images of manipulative CEOs and corporate greed makes for good soundbites, but miss the mark when it comes to the complexities of vaccinating the world against Covid-19.

Those companies, some working with the public sector, played a critical role in bringing us vaccines which - barely 18 months after the outbreak began - are now protecting millions. This is a scientific feat being likened to putting man on the Moon. It is reasonable the scientists responsible are paid well and their employers create returns for their shareholders. We want them ready and willing to do the same again one day.

There are better solutions, although they might require sacrifice and cold, hard cash. Developed nations - far down the path of vaccinating their own populations - could move away from arguments on intellectual property and towards donating their (over)stocks of vaccine to poorer neighbours, while removing trade barriers and other obstacles to speedier vaccine manufacturing.

Doing so would appear more likely to ensure we reach the point where we are safe – because everyone is safe.

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