With an urgency never seen before, more than 1.04 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines have been administered so far. Statistically, these billion doses are enough to jab about 6.8% of the global population but the vaccine distribution is not even handed. Countries with the highest income are getting vaccinated about 25 times faster than those of the lowest. So, a greater percent of the life-saving drugs have reached only the richest - and at this juncture, the scramble for the shot and a growth of vaccine nationalism have become even sharper.
According to the Centre for Global Development, many poorer nations will have to wait another two years before they can have any semblance of widespread vaccination of their people. And for now, the wealthiest 27 countries have 37.4% of the vaccines but have 10.5% of the world's population.
These facts made a recent move by India and South Africa all the more necessary. Both these countries, now reeling under new strains of Covid-19 and finding it hard to provide vaccination in enough quantities, had led a campaign late last year to have a temporary waiver on intellectual property rights so a third party could distribute licences to produce Covid-19 vaccines.
A similar waiver was made two decades ago to produce generic drugs for the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
If this move was successful, many countries would have not to wait for years to get enough shots to jab their citizens and thousands of lives could have been saved.
But no, the move failed as wealthy countries including Australia blocked the proposal in the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
What was behind the rich countries' objection was a simple profit motive. They argued that pharmaceutical companies invest a hell lot of money into innovation that they could not recoup the costs if such waiver were allowed. They also talk about maintaining strict standards of their products.
The debate has been further accentuated when Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates said vaccine formulas shouldn't be shared with developing nations.
During an interview with Sky News last week, Gates had emphatically said to a proposal of sharing vaccine recipes with poorer countries, adding: "There's only so many vaccine factories in the world and people are very serious about the safety of vaccines. And so moving something that had never been done, moving a vaccine, say, from a [Johnson & Johnson] factory into a factory in India, it's novel, it's only because of our grants and expertise that it can happen at all."
But as Harsh Pant, director of Strategic Studies, at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi has pointed out, the licence control has led to shortage of vaccines.
"It's life and death. So I think the position by India and South Africa is an important one," he said.
India has already flagged a severe shortage of vaccines and has stopped its exports to countries including Bangladesh that had been so far relying on a single supplier, Serum Institute of India, while most nations explored several alternatives.Bangladesh now faces a frustrating future about achieving a wide coverage of vaccination.
The World Health Organisation's Covax programme aims to supply 2 billion doses of vaccine to 92 poorer countries this year. But that would cover only a fifth of the target population.
It's not that the world does not have the capacity to produce much more than the current level. But such facilities across the globe from Canada's Biolyse to Bangladesh's Incepta are now sitting idle as they have not been given the licence to produce vaccines by the current vaccine copyright holders.
At this moment, there is no worldwide joint effort to expand production and the initiative to share the recipes is zero despite the fact that a lot of public money has gone into vaccine development.
The big pharma companies, at meetings with the European Commission in December 2020, defended their holding closely the vaccine recipes. They said they will ensure widespread distribution of the shots without prejudice as early as possible.
However what is happening now is just the opposite.
Such unsavoury behaviour of world pharmaceuticals has led former world leaders and Nobel laureates to call for suspending patents and coordinating production across the world just as what happened in the fight against smallpox and polio. The WHO had obtained recipes of the drugs and shared the technology globally.
During the Second World War, the US government forced pharmaceutical companies to share recipes for antibiotics.
But this time is a different time and profit pressure on the company top management is too high to pay heed to such altruistic calls.