As India suffers an overwhelming outbreak of COVID-19, and new variants of the virus emerge, global vaccination has only become more urgent. A great deal of debate has meanwhile focused on the patents that large pharmaceutical corporations, commonly known in the U.S. by the collective Big Pharma, hold on the coronavirus vaccines—and on how these patents represent an obstacle to accelerating their global production and distribution. Two weeks ago, the U.S. government announced that it supported waiving intellectual-property protections, which would allow manufacturers anywhere to access the vaccine recipes. But other countries’ governments and Big Pharma’s representatives opposed such waivers, with the outcome of this conflict still uncertain. In this context, knowing the pandemic will never truly be over in any country until its controlled globally, how can we make enough vaccines to inoculate the world?

According to Merrill Goozner—an American journalist and the author of The $800 Million Pill, a book on the pharmaceutical industry—patents represent only one of the issues in this question, and the history of global vaccinations suggests multiple ways to resolve it. The tougher challenges, Goozner says, are transferring technical expertise, acquiring vaccine ingredients, and assembling production equipment. As Goozner sees it, supporting compulsory vaccine licensing signals that the Biden administration might be more willing than previous administrations to force drug prices down, even as Big Pharma maintains significant allies across both parties in the U.S. Congress.

Michael Bluhm: Public-health experts estimate that it will require 11 billion doses to vaccinate 70 percent of the global population, which would create herd immunity. Right now, the patents on the vaccines are the most visible obstacle to producing them on a global scale. How do we address that?

Merrill Goozner: There’s a public-health imperative that the vaccinations be distributed around the entire globe. Herd immunity in one country doesn’t work very well. You need to have global herd immunity, or variants will emerge somewhere that will spread—and they will get around the existing vaccines.

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