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If Olaf Scholz is serious about progress, he must back a patent waiver for Covid vaccines | Joseph Stiglitz

Announcing a “new era” for Germany last month, the country’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, made his bold intentions clear. “We are united by our belief in progress and that politics can achieve something good,” he said, launching his SPD-Green-FDP coalition’s programme, under the slogan “dare more progress”.

This self-described “progress coalition” promises a series of socially liberal domestic policies – but it could make its greatest impact of all if it dares to join the global movement to make Covid-19 vaccines available to all as global public goods. The statement “no one is safe until everyone is safe” must be more than a nice-sounding slogan: Germany has the opportunity and the obligation to help it become a reality.

Scholz is justifiably proud of the leadership role he has played in recent years on global fairness. As Germany’s finance minister, he was a key player in bringing about a consensus on a global minimum corporate tax rate this July.

As the country’s new chancellor, he must take a second step in the interest of global fairness. So far, Germany has not been able to bring itself to do its part to ensure the availability of Covid-19 vaccines for everyone in the world. Doing so is imperative to global public health – but it is also in Germany’s self-interest.

What is needed is for Germany to agree to a temporary exemption from the World Trade Organization’s intellectual property rules. These currently stifle the worldwide production of Covid-19 vaccines and antiviral treatments. If this barrier were removed, more vaccine doses could be produced in, and for, developing countries. That is exactly what the world needs, as the emergence of the Omicron variant is proving, all over again.

So far the German government has been the main drag on agreeing to the patent waiver within the WTO. While major EU countries such as France, Italy and Spain support the exemption, the German government is actively lobbying other EU member states to reject granting the waiver. It is encouraging that Karl Lauterbach, an SPD politician and epidemiologist who has clearly spoken out in favour of the WTO waiver, has been appointed Germany’s health minister. But now Scholz needs to act.

The facts speak for themselves: while about 56% of the world’s 7.9 billion people have received at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine, the figure is 7.2% in low-income countries. Vaccination rates are particularly low in Africa.

Even before the need for booster vaccines became apparent and before the vaccination of children was approved, the world needed between 11bn and 15bn doses by the end of 2021, far in excess of current production capacity. The gap between demand and supply may even increase in coming months.

Imagine that the WTO waiver had been granted a year ago when it was first proposed: there would be fewer infected people, fewer hospital patients and fewer deaths today, especially in developing countries and emerging economies. That is why production facilities in the global south must be brought on stream as soon as possible. Otherwise, we have no realistic chance of winning the fight against the pandemic anytime soon.

The WTO waiver is about more than just humanitarian concerns and global fairness. For Germany as a major exporter, as well as a country of world-travelling tourists, this is also a matter of self-interest. Every day we read headlines about how Covid has disrupted supply chains. This has a direct impact on the global economy. The underlying logic is clear: the fewer people worldwide who are vaccinated, the more room the virus has to mutate into dangerous variants.

A change in the German government’s position would also send an important signal across the Atlantic. The Biden administration announced its support for the temporary waiver of intellectual property rights six months ago and called on other rich countries to do the same. As Scholz knows from the global fight for tax justice, working with the Biden administration can be a key building block for progress.

The Omicron variant highlights with new urgency how public health and the global economy are at risk, as long as the disease rages. The question for all people is: “Am I doing everything I can to control this virus?” This is especially true for politicians who are entrusted with the welfare of the people they serve.

Regrettably, the answer to this question so far is no for both Joe Biden and Olaf Scholz. This also applies to France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, who, just like Biden, expressed his support for a WTO waiver in mid-2021, but has not yet acted on it. He should use France’s EU presidency in the first half of 2022 to ensure EU-wide support for the waiver.

Only when they all agree to the WTO waiver will they have done what is necessary. But there will still be more to do, including incentivising the transfer of technology. Only then can vaccine production be adequately ramped up around the world. And only then will we really be able to effectively counter the spread of the virus.



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