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To what extent do pharmaceutical companies have an obligation to intervene in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The pharmaceutical industry is designed to discover, develop and produce medical drugs which aim to treat or prevent disease. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, their work has become more and more important, particularly as they begin to develop and market vaccines to prevent severe illness and hopefully transmission. Never before have we seen vaccines developed so quickly, passing through medical trials designed to make sure they are safe and effective, with few serious side effects. The pharmaceutical industry is governed by a series of laws and regulations which enable them to operate safely, giving rise to a moral obligation to do no harm. The role that this industry must play within the global pandemic is debated: to what extent do these companies have an obligation to intervene and ensure people around the world have equal access to vital healthcare?




The development, production and clinical trials associated with vaccine development are, without a doubt, expensive. Therefore, much of this cost must be offset by the price of the vaccine, which is sold to countries around the world. Countries in Europe are spending vast amounts of money on vaccines. The United Kingdom is thought to be spending £12 billion (17 million USD) on its vaccine roll-out. This amounts to an average cost of $2.15 per dose. Yet, the cost of each dose varies from country to country. Some African countries, for instance South Africa, have been able to purchase large volumes of the vaccine, despite having to pay far more than many European countries (around $5.25 per dose). However, for some countries, particularly those in Eastern Africa, purchasing vaccines at this high cost is simply not an option. 


This introduces the question, what can pharmaceutical companies do to ensure that countries with low GDP have equal rights and opportunities to begin a country-wide vaccination program? One response is the choice to sell the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine for no profit to developing countries – but is this enough?




COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access) has been set up in part by the World Health Organisation (WHO).  COVAX is focussed on ensuring that the manufacture and sale of vaccines is fair and is occurring at a rate that will ensure sufficient quantities to end this worldwide crisis. Without this task-force, there is a real risk that many people across the world will go unprotected against COVID-19, allowing the virus to spread more rapidly and continue to have a huge impact on economies around the world. The equal right to healthcare is fundamental to international development. In the WHO definition of this human right, it states that cost should not be a barrier to safe and effective healthcare. 


For lower-income countries who would otherwise not be able to afford an expensive vaccine roll-out, COVAX provides a clear service, the only viable way for the population as a whole to access preventative healthcare. COVAX has set aside 600 million doses for Africa, enough to successfully vaccinate 20% of the continent’s 1.2 billion population. On top of this international effort, the African Union has taken steps to complement that of COVAX – securing 670 million doses of the vaccination for the population of Africa. 


It is clear that the pharmaceutical industry has a large role to play in vaccine rollout worldwide. It has an obligation to work with the World Health Organisation to provide low-cost vaccines to those countries most at risk and those who are unable to afford the huge cost of a country-wide vaccination program. 

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