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In September 2020, the UN General Assembly showed a unified front in the need for equitable access to a vaccine
for COVID-19. After witnessing the damage done by the hoarding of supplies and personal protective equipment
that occurred at the start of the pandemic, the UN announced initiatives that would ensure the world’s most
vulnerable people would be first to get the vaccine.

In keeping with this goal, the University of Oxford developed their vaccine with the intention of keeping it open-
sourced, and initially promised it would be offered in nonexclusive, royalty -free licenses, meaning multiple

parties could make and sell the vaccine at a low cost for greater accessibility and equitability. However, after
some encouragement from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oxford reversed course and sold its vaccine
to pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, granting them full exclusive rights over it (Oxford, while it won’t
receive royalties, stands to see millions in profits generated by the sale). In October, the European Union (EU)
gave AstraZeneca $400 billion to scale up manufacturing capabilities in the bloc.
But after buying 400 million doses of the company’s vaccine at the end of 2020, the EU was not pleased to hear
that AstraZeneca would be decreasing their first shipment of vaccines to 31 million due to production shortfalls.
Tensions mounted at the end of January as the EU announced they would effectively halt exports of the
AstraZeneca vaccine to other countries until it meets its supply obligations to the 27 member states.

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Why Is It News?
Vaccines are not typically made for profit, yet governments around the world are struggling to balance corporate
interests and equitable distribution. Pharma companies typically prefer to peddle expensive medications that are
taken repeatedly instead of spending money on developing vaccines that may ultimately be administered only
once or twice. Established vaccines, such as those for the flu or measles, can be free or cost just a few dollars per
dose in some parts of the world. Vaccines traditionally get made through government subsidies and scientific
grants, with very little investment from the manufacturers. However, once a vaccine is developed, manufacturers
like AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer can then own the patents, monopolize distribution, and control pricing (all
profits from which they keep), leaving much-needed vaccines vulnerable to price-gouging.
Scientists around the world collaborated on a COVID-19 vaccine, sharing the full virus genome and establishing
the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool to promote the sharing of patents and other knowledge. As of the start
of 2021, a vaccine has finally arrived, but its distribution is not as equitable as was hoped for, and pharmaceutical
companies are refusing to change their ways.
With proprietary vaccines, these companies maintain patent exclusivity and continually hike up prices, with
Moderna charging up to USD 38 per dose, rendering it prohibitively expensive in lower-income regions. The
stockpiling of available vaccines exacerbates this problem; for example, the EU has purchased enough vaccines
to cover their population three times over, and the UK and Canada have each purchased enou gh to cover four
times their populations. Even if these countries donate some of their vaccines to lower income countries, these
actions only tend to lead countries to act in their own self-interest. High price points, blocked exports, and hoarded

vaccines only breed further nationalistic actions, ultimately prolonging the global pandemic and risking more
lives.

Discussion Questions (Answer in 400-500 words each)
Q.1 What are the ethical issues involved in this case?
Q.2 How did Oxford’s sale of the vaccine to AstraZeneca affect its production, distribution, affordability, and
profitability? Who stands to benefit, and who stands to lose, from this arrangement?

 
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