“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This long-held mantra by international development policy reflects the core controversy surrounding the discussion of the possible TRIPS waiver – a measure that most nations with strong pharmaceutical industries, such as Germany, still reject.
If you ask German pharma companies about the initiative, they argue that a waiver would be of little to no use for global vaccine justice in the short and medium term. Their reasoning: Countries of the Global South don’t have access to the necessary technology, staff and knowledge to produce the complex COVID-19 vaccines in a reasonable timeframe.
Even though the financial self-interest by the pharma industry is evident – they make a fair point. While BRICS states — emerging economies with existing pharmaceutical bases such as India and South Africa — might benefit from the lifting of patents, this probably doesn’t account for the overwhelming majority of low- and mid-income countries worldwide.
For them, the solution is not a lesson in fishing. The structural consequences of colonialism are too deep to be uprooted by a mere skill transfer. Centuries of inequalities in university training, funding and access to materials as well as production will not be erased by a WHO training taking place now on how to build vaccine manufacturing facilities. What they need is a state-of-the-art boat, proper fishing rods, high quality bait and a trained crew.
That’s why the voluntary “technology transfers” envisioned by the EU as a “3rd way” compromise aren’t enough. It needs to be mandatory. Companies like Biontech or Moderna who have received state funds should be obliged to send staff and equipment, just as all the nameless companies who build manufacturing facilities, equipment and chemicals should, too. This global pandemic response needs to be government-subsidised, and shouldn’t be left as an optional nicety. We can not afford to watch billions of people starve in front of a sea full of fish.