Inequitable by Design: The Law and Politics of Global COVID-19 Vaccine Access — And a Way Out

92 Pages Posted: 16 May 2022 Last revised: 4 Jul 2023

See all articles by Ximena Benavides

Ximena Benavides

Yale University; Institution for Social and Policy Studies; Yale University - Yale Information Society Project

Date Written: May 8, 2022


COVID-19 vaccine access has been highly inequitable worldwide, with coverage depending largely on a country’s wealth. By the end of 2021, 64.1% of people living in high-income countries had received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to only 5.4% of those in low-income countries. Similarly, only high- and upper-middle-income countries had received the most effective vaccines.

The uneven distribution of these lifesaving vaccines is complex due to the convergence of several factors, but it suggests that the expanding and ossifying extraordinary market and political power of a few vaccine manufacturers founded on intellectual property and complementary policies are decisive factors in shaping our healthcare systems and securing equitable access to vaccines.

This Article analyzes the power dynamics of vaccine manufacturing and distribution of U.S. pharmaceutical companies in the context of global COVID 19 vaccination. Drawing on the health-justice and law-and-political-economy scholarship of the last decade, this Article demonstrates how a “patent culture” shaped by intellectual property law fundamentally neglects health-equity principles as it politicizes healthcare access. These contemporary frameworks suggest that the global COVID-19 vaccine-access problem is the result of avoidable policy choices of big manufacturers and affluent governments. Despite a long history of inequities in access to healthcare, policy choices—as predicted by Hart’s inverse equity theory—have favored a purposely inequitable-by-design vaccination program driven by the wealth and power of those allowed to control vaccine production and supply globally.

Finally, the Article proposes ways to challenge the normalized and institutionalized patent culture that has commodified access to lifesaving conditions beyond national borders. As it examines national and international legal strategies to address the vaccine-access problem, the Article suggests equity-based principles of public value, transparency, and inclusivity to guide healthcare governance and future reformation of the vaccine-access landscape. An interdisciplinary analysis of the first year of the global vaccine rollout provides an account critical to future policies aiming to address the structural conditions needed to attain equitable health outcomes, even after the pandemic.

Funding Information: Yale Institute for Global Health and Yale University’s Fox International Fellowship at the MacMillan Center grants that supported this research project

Conflict of Interests: None to declare.

Keywords: Health Law, Health Policy, Health Equity, COVID-19 Vaccine, Intellectual Property, Patents, Patent Culture, Political Economy, Health Justice, Access to Medicine, Pharma

Suggested Citation

Benavides, Ximena, Inequitable by Design: The Law and Politics of Global COVID-19 Vaccine Access — And a Way Out (May 8, 2022). University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Vol. 56, No. 2, 2023., Available at SSRN: or

Ximena Benavides (Contact Author)

Yale University ( email )

31 Hillhouse Ave.
New Haven, CT 06511
United States

Institution for Social and Policy Studies ( email )

New Haven, CT 06520
United States

Yale University - Yale Information Society Project ( email )

127 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511
United States

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