Heart-rending scenes of illness and death in India compel Canadians to look for ways to help rescue India’s people from the cruel upsurge of COVID-19. Hospitals are turning deathly-ill patients away for lack of oxygen to give them. Crematoriums are unable to handle the accumulating bodies of the deceased.
Canada might be able to help by joining the Biden administration in Washington in seeking to break the monopoly power of drug manufacturers so generic drug makers would be legally free to produce vaccines that are now protected by patent. It is not yet clear, however, what good that would do in the circumstances; nor is it clear what price Canadians would pay for such a gesture.
At the Davos World Economic Forum in January, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi boasted that his government had defeated the pandemic by locking down the economy. He had scarcely finished speaking when India’s COVID-19 numbers started increasing once again. The pandemic now rages out of control all across India.
Despite the obvious risk of virus transmission, Mr. Modi focused the efforts of his Hindu-nationalist government on campaigning for the late-March elections in West Bengal, holding huge election rallies to advance his anti-Muslim program. He allowed hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees in an April religious festival to gather and bathe in the Ganges River with no masks and no social distancing.
In the end, his party was soundly defeated in the West Bengal elections and the pandemic surged to new heights. The problem now for India’s friends and supporters around the world is how to help the country past these desperate difficulties when its own prime minister’s attention seems to be elsewhere.
India and South Africa have been urging the member countries of the World Trade Organization to temporarily waive patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines so generic makers could produce them to increase the supply and reduce the price. Governments of the leading industrial countries opposed that idea, as did drug innovators. President Joe Biden now supports the idea; meanwhile, Canada’s Liberal government has been thinking about it.
Part of Canada’s difficulty is that the drug manufacturers have us over a barrel. The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been begging vaccine producers to deliver more doses to Canada so provincial governments can step up their immunization efforts and save the federal drug-buyers from seeming lame and ineffective. In these circumstances, Canada is poorly placed to talk tough to the drug-makers.
Canada has for decades manipulated patent protection periods for pharmaceuticals in order to keep prices down. If it really wanted to win drug company co-operation on vaccine supply to Third World countries, Canada might have to give them more of a free hand to crank up the prices charged to Canadian drug consumers. A deal along those lines would be hard to explain to the Canadian public — not a strong plank to add to an election platform.
India is a leading vaccine manufacturing country, so Canada should listen sympathetically to appeals for help from India. It should, however, look for sound reasons for thinking that waiving patent protection would help matters. It should also take care not to blow up the drug pricing system that currently protects Canadians from the much higher drug prices that prevail in the United States.