VACCINE EQUALITY: WHO GETS IT?
Covid-19 vaccines should not be only for the rich. But that is what’s happening around the world today. Heidi Chow says we must share technology and suspend patents so we can produce vaccines for everyone.
Government officials pray over a box of Covid-19 vaccines before it goes to various vaccination centres in Mumbai, India, in January 2021. India is one of the countries that is says we should not have to follow patent rules on Covid-19 vaccines during the pandemic. DHIRAJ SINGH/BLOOMBERG/GETTY
‘We watch daily the good news that there are approved vaccines in the UK, US and rich countries in Europe,’ says Farooq Tariq from the Pakistan Kissan Rabita Peasants Coordination Committee. ‘We are happy that people in richer countries are now getting vaccines and getting safe. But we are also very sad and worried. It makes us feel that we are not important because we live in places where we will not get the vaccine for years.’
Governments wanted to discover good vaccines to stop the lockdowns and social restrictions. These have created many problems – economic and social – in all countries. which have caused severe economic and social disruption in all countries. Science has done very well to develop good vaccines quickly, but now politics and businesses are blocking other countries getting fair access.
Rich countries - only 16 per cent of the world’s population - have bought 60 per cent of the most important vaccines. That’s enough to vaccinate all their populations three times. But most of the poorest countries will probably only vaccinate 10% of people in 2021. Many poorer countries might wait until 2024 for vaccines for all. This division between richer and poorer countries shows the weaknesses of the world pharmaceutical system.
NO-ONE IS SAFE UNTIL EVERYONE IS SAFE
Getting equal access to vaccines is an important part of the human right to health. 2.7 million people have died from COVID, and more will die. If we have enough vaccines, this will stop even more people dying. Research shows that we could stop 61% of deaths if there is equal distribution of vaccines (and only 33% if the rich countries keep them all).
If the rich countries keep all the vaccines, this is unfair and morally wrong. And this will be a big problem for the rich countries too. If we don’t vaccinate people in large parts of the world, the virus will continue to spread and could mutate more, so the vaccines might not work. No-one is safe until everyone is safe.
It is also a bad plan economically. The International Chamber of Commerce says that if we leave developing countries with no vaccines, this will reduce the income of rich countries by $4.5 trillion this year. Covid-19 vaccines are so important that the international group the People’s Vaccine Alliance is saying that governments must treat vaccines as global public goods – they must produce enough, make them cheap enough for all countries to buy them, and make them free to people. But we cannot do this as there are not enough vaccines yet. So the richer countries keep them all.
World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in January that they world will soon fail morally, and the price of this failure will be lives in the world’s poorest countries.
The media is asking if rich countries should give away some of their vaccines, and how much money is needed to buy more. But the really important questions are: why are there not enough of a product that the world so desperately needs? And how can we make more doses so there are enough for everyone, everywhere?
We don’t have enough vaccines because of pharmaceutical monopolies. Pharmaceutical companies can patent (protect) their products, so only they can sell their vaccines or treatments for a minimum of 20 years. They also keep their technological information secret. So no other companies can make them. There is no competition, so pharmaceutical companies decide how much to produce, who to sell it to, and how much to charge. And during the pandemic, they have been happy to sell the vaccines to the countries who pay the most.
Is this Bangladeshi woman lucky to get a vaccine? Prices are so high that millions of people in the world won’t get one. GMB AKASH/PANOS
CHANGING THE RULES
The pharmaceutical industry has made a lot of profit from vaccines – now it is one of the most profitable industries in the world. The industry will probably earn about $10 billion each year from Covid-19 vaccines. But public health around the world will suffer.
This is the same business model that made it too expensive for millions of HIV patients in the Global South to get treatment when HIV was worst. More treatments were developed, but only very rich countries could pay for them. Countries in the Global South had no treatments. Pharmaceutical companies refused to lower their prices and millions of people died, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. More recently, it has been very difficult for many poorer countries to get medicines for cancer, hepatitis C and cystic fibrosis because they are too expensive.
Many times, when there is a conflict between making profit and public health, profit always wins. And that’s because pharmaceutical industry has the control. They created their own rules to protect the monopoly. And in 1995 the industry won as these rules were written into a global trade agreement, Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). So after that they could force these rules on almost every country of the world. Ordinary people lose most – they cannot get treatments to save their lives.
ENOUGH DOSES FOR EVERYONE, EVERYWHERE?
With these pharmaceutical monopolies, there will never be enough supplies. But there are 2 new ideas that could create a People’s Vaccine for everyone and unblock production. The first is the WHO’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool, which started in 2020. This would make it easier to share information and intellectual property rights with other companies and governments. We would get more manufacturers, increase global supply and help lower prices.
The UK has not joined yet but Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, supports the WHO pool – this means Biden’s government might join too. Pharmaceutical companies do not like the plan, and the boss of Pfizer said it is ‘nonsense’. There are problems between public health and making profit. But we are in the middle of the worst global public-health emergency in a century and almost every business in the world has had to change. We need the pharmaceutical companies to do the same.
All the successful vaccines have had a lot of public funding - in total, about $100 billion of public money has gone into global research and development of Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and diagnostics. If public money funds the vaccines, they should not be locked up by monopolies for private companies to make profit. They must share the technology and information so the whole world can benefit. But if companies do not join the WHO global pool, it will not even be able to start.
Countries in the Global South want to suspend the patent rules, and this could really help supply so many more vaccines across the world. This proposal has the support of two-thirds of the World Trade Organization (WTO) members, the WHO, almost 400 civil society organizations and even the Pope. But it was blocked at the WTO in March by rich countries including the UK, US, Switzerland and the EU. These rich countries say they cannot disrupt the global system of intellectual property rights.
Municipal health workers travel along the Solimões River in Brazil’s Amazonas state to give the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine to local people earlier this year. BRUNO KELLY/REUTERS
CHARITY VERSUS JUSTICE
The rich countries are relying on the WHO and Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (led by Bill Gates’ Foundation) or Covax to get more equal access to vaccines. Covax is a global buying scheme where countries buy vaccines together and then share them fairly.
This Covax scheme looks good. But one of the biggest funders of Covax is the British government – they are making more deals to get all vaccines for the UK first. Covax doesn’t have enough money and can only promise to deliver two billion doses this year. This is only 20-per-cent of the vaccines needed in each member country. So this is not nearly enough for countries to get herd immunity.
At a G7 meeting in February, the UK government promised to give the vaccines they don’t need. But there are still many questions – will the countries have to pay for the vaccines?. The French government also promised to donate some doses, but these two promises are not enough.
Rich countries are quickly vaccinating their own populations, but China and Russia have been quickly supplying countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans. They are improving their links with these countries, and their power and importance. India has promised to give away millions of doses to countries in South Asia – to try to stop the influence of China.
So vaccines are changing the power of countries. Russia and China are sending vaccines to countries who cannot buy them. But the most harmful case so far is Israel. Reports say Israel is sending Moderna vaccines to Honduras, the Czech Republic and Guatemala – and all these countries are increasing their diplomatic staff in Jerusalem. But Israel has sent less than 5000 vaccines to the Palestinian Authority for healthcare workers. They are using vaccines to buy power.
Every country is desperate to end the pandemic. And every country should get vaccines and treatments to combat this virus. Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of South Africa grew up under apartheid and he says vaccine inequality reminds him of apartheid. He couldn’t go to a white university because he was black. Vaccines only for the Global North and West is like saying we are not human enough and need to wait.
Equal access to vaccines is about human rights. And access should never be decided by wealth. If a country only vaccinated its richest citizens first, everyone would complain. But this is exactly what the pharmaceutical industry and rich governments have allowed to happen to the world, and we need to shout loudly about it. Most of the world’s population has been treated as ‘not so important’ for too long.
by Heidi Chow, a senior campaigns and policy manager at Global Justice Now, who leads the organization’s campaign to fight for equitable global access to medicines and vaccines.
ACTION AND INFO:
Free the Vaccine: Volunteers from 29 countries calling for access everywhere, without patents, and free at the point of delivery.
Universities Allied for Essential Medicines: (UAEM) NGO started in university student movement in 20 countries for access to medicines for people in developing countries, by changing university patenting and licensing.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF): International humanitarian medical NGO calling for no patents on, or making profit from, Covid-19 drugs and vaccines.
The People’s Health Movement: A grassroots advocacy and research network operating in 70 countries. Its global EACT project is focused on vaccine and other Covid-19 technologies.
Health GAP (Global Access Project): International advocacy organization, rooted in HIV treatment activism, now calling for a patent waiver on all Covid-19 vaccines.
Global Justice Now: UK-based NGO with strong focus on health inequality as well as issues of trade and debt.
Public Citizen: NGO that lobbies the US government to use leverage with Big Pharma to share vaccine technology for the public good worldwide.
NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/2021/04/06/big-story-vaccine-equality-who-gets-it