Pope Francis has repeatedly insisted that the countries manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines (such as the U.S. and U.K.) ensure they be equitably distributed, especially to the Global South. During his historic trip to Iraq, he said that “This crisis calls for concerted efforts by all to take necessary steps, including an equitable distribution of vaccines for everyone” (Address, 3/5/21). Last month he told the ambassadors to the Vatican: “I encourage all states to contribute actively to the international efforts being made to ensure an equitable distribution of the vaccines, based not on purely economic criteria but on the needs of all, especially of peoples most in need.” In his address to the United Nations last year, he said: “I renew my appeal to political leaders and the private sector to spare no effort to ensure access to Covid-19 vaccines and to the essential technologies needed to care for the sick.”
The Pontifical Academy for Life first articulated this priority last July, saying unequivocally: “The only acceptable goal, consistent with a just allocation of the vaccine, is access for all without exceptions” (Humana Communitas in the Age of Pandemic 2.2). The basis for this declaration is the doctrine of the Catholic Church, according to which healthcare is a universal human right: “Access to quality health care and to essential medicines must be effectively recognized as a universal human right” (ibid.). This is the firm teaching of the Church.
“Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services.”
John XXIII, Pacem in Terris 11
“Unfortunately, the problem still remains today of many populations of the world that do not have access to the necessary resources to satisfy fundamental needs, particularly in regard to health. It is necessary to work with greater commitment at all levels so that the right to health is rendered effective, favoring access to primary health care. In our time we witness on one hand a care of health that risks being transformed into pharmacological consumerism, medical and surgical, becoming almost a cult of the body, and on the other, the difficulty of millions of persons to accede to conditions of minimal subsistence and indispensable medicines to be cured.”
Benedict XVI, Message to the 25th international conference of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry (11/18/10)
The position of the Holy Father on equitable global vaccine distribution is clear. Insofar as this is a logical, particular application of a general Catholic principle, it can be said that this is the official position of the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, there are worrying signs that the U.S., U.K., and European Union may not be living up to our moral responsibility. Fifty-seven countries in the Global South, through the World Trade Organization’s Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property, have been seeking a temporary waiver of the intellectual property rights of vaccine makers. Waiving these rights through the WTO would allow anyone with the capability to legally manufacture the vaccines. For the third time, on March 11, this request for a waiver was denied by the governments of the U.S., U.K., and E.U.
Many experts have spoken out against selfishness being placed ahead of equitable vaccine distribution. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is also in the best interest of everyone, since the virus spreads freely around the globe. Virus spreading in poorer countries will not stay in poorer countries! Marine Buissonnière, of Physicians for Human Rights, has put it well:
“It is truly confounding that wealthier nations think that hoarding vaccines is the way to protect their citizens from a global pandemic that doesn’t respect borders. Clearly, the failure to address vaccine allocation based on health and epidemiological needs, rather than national interest, is now promising to have a dire impact on the world’s ability to achieve rapid, global control of COVID.”
Some American politicians have joined the cause. Notably, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has long crusaded against the pharmaceutical industry, said in a video message supporting the waiver: “It is unconscionable that amid a global health crisis, huge multibillion dollar pharmaceutical companies continue to prioritize profits by protecting their monopolies and driving up prices rather than prioritizing the lives of people everywhere, including the Global South.” He says he sent a letter to the Biden administration asking them to support the temporary waiver.
Those who oppose the waiver argue that it’s important that vaccine makers keep their patents, so as to protect the profit motive that drives vaccine creation and innovation in the pharmaceutical industry at large. Certainly, patents play an important role, and as a matter of justice companies deserve to have their intellectual property protected by law. I do not think anyone would want to abolish drug patents completely. But that does not mean that they need to be absolutely inflexible, especially during a global pandemic that has claimed more than 2.6 million lives globally. Does anyone seriously believe Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca are in danger of losing money here? Their development of a safe, effective vaccine against Covid-19, in record time, will no doubt redound to their financial glory for years to come. This waiver will mean they make a little bit less money, for the purpose of speeding up vaccine distribution globally. That sounds like a good trade-off to me, and one in line with Pope Francis’s urgent appeals to put people ahead of profit.
Surely some compromise is possible and, from a moral standpoint, necessary. Already we have seen President Biden tout his brokering of a deal between Johnson & Johnson and Merck, to get Merck plants manufacturing J&J’s one-shot vaccine. He justified this by appealing to the extraordinary “war-time” conditions. In the same way, if we need to relax intellectual property rights in order to ensure equitable distribution to the Global South, then that is what we must do. Ideally, companies would do this on their own, for the sake of humanity. But if they won’t (and corporations, driven by profit, rarely act out of humanistic altruism), then it’s the job of governments to force them to for the sake of the common good.
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Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).