Covid-19 vaccination underway in the Umariaçu indigenous village, near Tabatinga, Amazonas, Brazil. ©2021 Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil

As a new more contagious variant of the novel coronavirus spreads across the country, Brazilians are getting understandably frustrated that it is taking some time to get access to a Covid-19 vaccine. So far, 6.1 million Brazilians have received a first dose. These include some health workers, indigenous people,  older people, and people with disabilities living in institutions. That is 2,92 percent of the country’s 212 million inhabitants.

The situation in many other countries is even more grim. The World Health Organization reported in early February that about 130 countries and 2.5 billion people had yet to receive a single dose. 

Supply shortages influence how quickly all countries, including Brazil, can roll out vaccines. Brazil is largely dependent on imported vaccines and imported API – Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (which includes raw materials for vaccine production), including from China, India and the global vaccine procurement pool, the COVAX Facility.

The government said in its vaccination plan that it was confident it would secure doses for more than 80 percent of Brazil’s population, although it did not say when.  At the current pace, it would take more than four years for Brazil to vaccinate everyone, according to one estimate. Brazilians and billions of others have found themselves waiting down the line while some wealthier countries have used their financial clout to reserve enough -- and in several cases, excess -- doses for their own population.

But there is a way to speed up vaccine access for everyone.

Human Rights Watch and many others are supporting a proposal by South Africa and India to the World Trade Organization to temporarily waive some intellectual property rights rules until “widespread vaccination is in place globally.” The waiver of these rules under the Agreement of Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) would allow more international collaboration in the manufacture of the vaccines and other medical products—without authorization from the companies that created them—and could speed production and availability of vaccines worldwide. The World Trade Organization will meet in March  to consider that proposal.

Prioritizing public health over some patent rules when facing a health emergency is permitted under global intellectual property rules and was reaffirmed by the Doha Declaration at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Brazil did just that in 2007 with a key anti-HIV drug, which allowed it to provide free universal HIV/AIDS treatment. That policy became a worldwide success story.

But under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s government seems to have abandoned its commitment to champion public health. This time, it has sided with those blocking the proposal, which includes pharmaceutical companies and high-income governments. Brazil claims that there is no need for a temporary waiver of international intellectual property rules because they already permit governments to relax rules to protect health.

In practice, though, the  existing flexibilities under international intellectual property rules are not sufficient. They don’t offer the expedited or global solution needed. Brazil should reconsider its position and join the governments supporting the proposal. The TRIPS waiver would enable and pave the way for efforts to share the recipe for vaccines, through technology transfers, pooling intellectual property, and issuing global, open, and non-exclusive licenses that could help scale up manufacturing.

That would help not just developing countries, but the world at large. A new study funded by the International Chambers of Commerce, which represents the interests of companies worldwide, concluded that vaccine inequity and delays in vaccinating the developing world could cost the global economy 49 trillion BRL (US$9.2 trillion), half of which would be borne by advanced economies even after they successfully vaccinated their entire populations. 

Now we’re facing a race between the development and spread of new variants and vaccination. Even though Brazil can manufacture some of its own stock, the raw materials Brazil needs to make these doses come from abroad too.

If adopted, the temporary waiver would allow governments to mobilize medical manufacturing capacity  around the world to mass produce any safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines. Wider vaccination would save countless lives in Brazil and elsewhere. In turn, it would also lead to a faster economic recovery, a prospect that is the stated priority of Brazil’s current government.