To overcome the global pandemic, it is imperative for the international community to swiftly develop vaccines and drug treatments for COVID-19, and make them freely available throughout the world.
In this effort there can be no difference in treatment between industrialized and developing nations. However, major powers, while engaged in a fierce race to develop COVID-19 vaccines, also have a tendency to direct attention to securing vaccine supplies solely for their own domestic use. Yet such regions as Latin America and Africa, where health and hygiene systems are fragile, should not be left behind. Doing so would ensure there could be no prospect for indefinitely bringing an end to the pandemic.
The creation of a “COVID-19 vaccine patent pool,” as Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe propounded in a news conference on May 25, is of high significance in this regard. The idea is that the patents for vaccines, when they are developed by industrialized countries, should be put under joint management of the international community to provide a framework for developing countries to obtain the vaccines speedily and at low costs.
The Prime Minister expressed his intention to come out with the proposal at the upcoming Group of Seven (G7) summit of major industrial powers that was originally scheduled for June in Washington. We hope to see Prime Minister Abe demonstrate his leadership by materializing the envisioned vaccine patent pool system.
There are more than 130 versions of the vaccine under development around the world, and 10 which are now in clinical trials. The United States, keen to put anti-COVID-19 vaccines into practical use by the end of 2020, has mobilized a wide-range of entities for this purpose — from government agencies to private companies and research institutions. In the middle of May, a U.S. biotechnology company announced its success at the human testing stage in an initial effort to produce an antibody to stem COVID-19 infections.
Some countries, however, are suspicious that the Trump administration is trying to monopolize vaccine supplies under the President’s “America First” policy. This has led such nations as France and Germany to call for any COVID-19 vaccines to be treated equitably as “public property of the world” at a recent annual meeting of the World Health Organization.
Prime Minister Abe stated in his May 25 news conference, “We are ready to lead the world in a free and open manner, working hand-in-hand with nations of shared values [such as freedom and democracy].” Japan should serve as a bridge between the U.S. and Europe for narrowing the gap on COVID-19 vaccine development. Working together with the United States on joint development of a vaccine is important, while at the same time encouraging all countries to take part in the proposed patent pool, bringing together the collective wisdom, human resources, and funds for fighting the virus.
Worrisome in this connection are moves of China. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has launched an investigation into allegations that Beijing may have stolen vaccine development information through cyberattacks on and spying activities in the United States. It is suspected that China aims to produce vaccines on a large scale ahead of the United States and Europe, and provide them to Africa and other developing regions in a bid for global hegemony in the post-coronavirus era. If the U.S. suspicions are substantiated, China will have no room for refuting the criticism of its hegemonic ambitions.
Vaccine development must never be used to pursue hegemonic ambitions. At the same time, there are also fears that China might employ an ends-justify-the-means approach by continuing vaccine research activities without transparency and while neglecting safety. We must guard against these concerns without fail.
(Click here to read this editorial in Japanese.)
Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun