The UK had a Covid-19 vaccine nationalism policy – now it’s paying the price

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The UK had a Covid-19 vaccine nationalism policy – now it’s paying the price

The UK blocked suggestions from Global South countries to suspend the rights to intellectual property on Covid-19 vaccines, and now the UK is suffering from global vaccine politics. Nick Dearden writes.


Credit: Marco Verch/Flickr (CC 2.0 license.)

For months, the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine programme went really well. But the EU struggled with getting enough vaccine and most low- and middle-income countries have not yet vaccinated even one person. And more than 25 million Britons have received their first dose of the vaccine. Many Britons thought the UK’s ‘go it alone’ policy was working well – until this week, the end of March.

Now, UK vaccine nationalism is making millions of people under 50 years old wait longer for their vaccinations. But this crisis is a direct result of the UK government’s policies.

India’s Serum Institute is the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer. After an increase in Covid-19 cases in India, five million doses from the Serum Institute are not coming to the UK. The producer says it’s at the orders of the Indian government. And, if that is true, India is doing exactly what the UK has done to the rest of the world.

With the problems of its slow vaccination programme, the EU is threatening to block vaccine exports to the UK. But not many people noticed the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saying she would use ‘whatever is necessary’ to vaccinate the people in the EU, including suspending rights to intellectual property.

This was a big change from the EU. Until now, it was a strong defender of rights to intellectual property for vaccines. But it’s something that Global South countries have been demanding for a long time – while the EU, UK, and US have blocked the idea.

Early in the pandemic, it seemed clear there was no national way out of a global pandemic – and a new age of multilateralism, countries working together, would be needed to end Covid-19.

In May 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) started its Covid-19 technology access pool (C-TAP). This is a programme for countries and pharmaceutical companies to share new ideas and knowledge to stop coronavirus.

The pharmaceutical industry seems happy to make profits during a health crisis, and so it said no to the programme. The Pfizer boss said it was ‘nonsense’. None of the pharmaceutical companies with a successful Covid-19 vaccine has signed up to the C-TAP programme.

AstraZeneca developed their vaccine with public money. They promised not to make a profit from their vaccines but they also said no to the C-TAP programme.

This means that vaccines can only be produced within each pharmaceutical company’s supply chain. This means we are using a very small part of the world’s vaccine production potential. This is to make sure that the big pharmaceutical companies can keep their patents and their profits.

Matt Hancock is the UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. He made deals with pharmaceutical companies to get millions more doses than the UK needs. This puts the UK at the front of the queue.

While rich countries have bought up enough jabs to vaccinate their populations three times over by the end of the year, the world’s poorest nations will wait until at least 2023 to vaccinate enough of their populations to get herd immunity – and many people will die.

So big pharmaceutical companies are refusing to work with the WHO and rich countries are buying up the world’s supply of vaccines. Now low- and middle-income countries have started challenging the trade rules which are keeping vaccine doses from their people.

India and South Africa are leading more than 100 developing nations to suggest an end to a World Trade Organisation agreement protecting medical patents. This would allow them to develop generic versions of vaccines and treatments. But the UK, EU, and the US have blocked the idea again and again to keep the big pharmaceutical companies happy.

Less global production means low- and middle-income countries must wait years for vaccines. Factories across the world that could produce the needed vaccines can do nothing because big pharmaceutical companies refuse to share the knowledge developed with a lot of public money. But it’s only now that this is affecting the UK’s vaccination programme.

In the increasing crisis, the EU is now threatening to do exactly what it has stopped low- and middle-income countries from doing – suspending rights to intellectual property to make its own vaccines.

That will not help low- and middle-income countries but it’s a solution to mad vaccine nationalism. And as the UK is now finding it does not have enough vaccines, its government should do the same.

Things are changing internationally. The US is free from Trump and it might be more open to this idea. Bernie Sanders has asked the Biden administration to support it. And Biden has already used wartime powers to increase production but he hasn’t challenged the big pharmaceutical companies yet.

But this can’t be another case of rich countries working together while the rest of the world suffers. If we are to make sure everyone, everywhere gets vaccinated as soon as possible, we need to suspend vaccine patents globally and bring an end to the terrible vaccine nationalism.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)