HOW many of us, I wonder, are familiar with the name Jonas Salk? If it doesn’t immediately ring a bell then perhaps it should, given that his massive contribution to medical science has impacted positively on so many of our lives.

For those unfamiliar with this American doctor, researcher and virologist, suffice to say it was Salk who developed one of the first successful polio vaccines.

These days, it’s all too easy to forget that until Salk’s vaccine was introduced, polio and its epidemics devastated so many lives across the world.

Worthy as this reportedly dedicated and humble man is of our gratitude, he’s equally worthy of our respect. Asked back in the early 1950s by the great American journalist Edward Murrow who owned the patent on his vaccine against the poliovirus, Salk famously responded: “The people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Salk was a man driven by a basic humanity. For him his work was about saving people’s lives, not about making money and profit.

His selfless example is worth remembering right now as the push to develop a safe and effective vaccine against Covid-19 reaches a pitch matched only by the desire of those keen to make a buck out of owning the patent.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what’s at stake here as the interests of the wealthiest corporations and governments threaten to come before the universal need to save lives.

I mean, let’s just pause and ask ourselves: do we really want this massive and moral task to be left to market forces?

As an open letter signed by hundreds of global public figures, including 50 former world leaders, this week rightly urged, we simply cannot afford for monopolies, crude competition and near-sighted nationalism to stand in the way of ensuring access to such a vaccine.

And make no mistake about it, without political pressure being brought to bear, that is precisely what’s likely to happen. The timing, too, in preventing this could not be more pressing given that we’re only days away from Monday’s World Health Assembly (virtual) meeting.

In short, these are the people who constitute the decision-making body of the World Health Organisation (WHO), and it’s vital they rally behind a people’s vaccine rather than allow its use to be controlled by a privileged few.

As Oxfam’s GB’s chief executive Danny Sriskandarajah put it succinctly, saying what matters is that when a vaccine is found “it’s distributed fairly and free of charge according to need, not sold off to the highest bidder”.

Already the EU has proposed the voluntary pooling of patents for a coronavirus vaccine in its draft resolution for the World Health Assembly.

How telling it is then – if not unexpected – to find from details of a leaked document that the Trump administration is trying to delete references to pooled patents and instead rewording the proposal over patents in favour of big pharmaceutical companies.

In other words “Big Pharma” would be given exclusive rights to produce and set prices for any vaccines, despite the fact that taxpayers’ money has been used to fund their research and development.

The implications of Big Pharma along with certain governments becoming grand overseers of access to the vaccine are obvious. To begin with, you can bet the poorest across the world will be the last in line to benefit, if at all.

Just as we saw with PPE and other crucial medical supplies, the rich and powerful will push their way to the front of the queue and to hell with everyone else.

As Oxfam has also pointed out,

all of this can be put in context

when you consider that vaccinating the poorest half of humanity –

3.7 billion people – against coronavirus could cost less than the 10 biggest pharmaceutical companies make in an average four months.

THAT one simple fact tells us all we need to know about who the winners and losers are here, and why all of us must voice our disapproval and lobby against the mercenary and discriminatory process that might be about to unfold over access to the vaccine.

More power, then, to the elbow of those in Scotland who have already made a start on this, like the rights group Global Justice Now. Earlier this week the organisation presented an open letter to the First Minister, calling on the Scottish Government to use its powers to override any patents that are put on new medicines and vaccines for Covid-19 in order to block Big Pharma companies from profiteering from the pandemic.

Among the numerous signatories were The Poverty Alliance, STUC, Unison Scotland, Unite Scotland, Common Weal, Jubilee Scotland and academics from Strathclyde Law School.

As activists have pointed out, all governments, including Scotland’s devolved administration, have the option of side-stepping pharmaceutical patents.

As it stands, international patent laws allow the manufacture of cheaper versions of vaccines and other medicines if it is considered to be in the public interest.

There are precedents here, too, such as last month when Germany and Canada took advantage of what is called “compulsory licensing”, when they amended public health laws in order to fast-track Covid-19 related medicines, equipment and vaccines when needed.

As an effective vaccine becomes a reality, there’s no doubt that everyone will want it at the same time. But making it available must not be determined solely by whether a country is a member of the club of wealthier nations. Apart from the obvious moral imperatives behind this there are also good sound global medical reasons.

As one spokesperson for the African Union (AU) astutely pointed out: “We cannot have pockets of wellbeing in a world that is unwell.”

As regular readers of this column will know, I’ve always advocated that in an independent Scotland, the pursuit of an ethical foreign policy would present our nation in its best and most desirable light on the international stage.

Right now, at this most unlikely of moments, we have an opportunity for Scotland to show what it’s capable of by making clear that profits must not be put before helping those worst affected by the pandemic.

“Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality,” said Salk, the man who insisted the polio vaccine should be for the benefit of all people.

I’m with him on that one. Here’s hoping my fellow Scots and others around the world will agree that profit must never come before universal access to this vaccine and heath care.