- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #1960
The pandemic is ravaging India with more than one million new cases every three days – a figure which is undoubtedly a gross underestimate. The number of new cases is surging on the African continent and in Latin America while a handful of high-income countries, including Australia, stand in the way of expanding the production of vaccines.
The divide between low- and high-income countries could not be more stark.
At the time of writing, 1.06 billion vaccine doses have been given worldwide. The EU, US and UK make up only 10.8 per cent of the global population but have purchased or have on order 50 per cent of all vaccinations. Whereas Africa, with 17.2 per cent of the world’s population, has only received 1.5 per cent of vaccinations. (The Conversation)
At this rate of vaccination, global herd immunity will not be reached until 2023 or 2024 or even later. That is assuming no new mutations emerge that are beyond adaptation of existing vaccinations.
“[Put] very simply the current inequities in access are both morally unconscionable and profoundly injurious to human health and well-being, and they demand immediate action,” World Trade Organisation (WTO) Director General Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in response to a letter from 250 non-government organisations from around the world.
The signatories include medical, people’s health, trade union, human rights, indigenous, women’s, trade justice, and other organisations. Those from Australia include the Australian Council of Trade Unions, AID/WATCH, Maritime Union of Australia (Victorian Branch), Public Health Association of Australia, and the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network.
The letter expresses concern over the present emphasis on industry-controlled bilateral agreements as the primary approach to addressing global production constraints and supply shortages of vaccine for COVID-19. Rich countries are signing deals with pharmaceutical companies for the supply of vaccines. Distribution is restricted and decentralised leaving many low-income countries extremely vulnerable without a supply of vaccine.
If global herd immunity is to be acquired then, speed and global distribution are of the essence. “The recent emergence of rapidly-spreading variants makes the rapid and equitable rollout of vaccines all the more important,” World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned.
The longer it takes to vaccinate people in third world countries the greater the risk of new, more deadly strains emerging. Health experts around the world are warning of the dangers if vaccination is not sped up and made accessible globally.
HOARDING BY RICH COUNTRIES
One billion doses, even allowing for considerable wastage, should more than cover two vaccinations for the EU’s 448 million people. Yet the EU has 1.885 billion confirmed purchases and another one billion potential purchases. That is enough to fully (two doses) vaccinate the population three times over.
The US has confirmed purchases of 1.21 billion and another 1.3 billion potential purchases – a total of 2.51 billion doses for a population of 328 million. That’s almost four times what is needed at this point in time. The hoarding of vaccines and monopoly on advance orders by the EU and US alone removes 3.843 billion jabs from the market or enough vaccine for more than 1.9 billion people.
But hoarding is not the only barrier to distribution and access. Big Pharma is also obstructing global distribution with its monopoly over the vaccines, protected by WTO rules.
INHUMANE BARRIER TO DISTRIBUTION
The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights – referred to as the TRIPS agreement – guarantees powerful global corporations a monopoly over innovations, inventions, products, and processes for a minimum of twenty years. To protect these “intellectual property rights” corporations take out patents. The only way other companies or governments can access that “intellectual property” is through a licence issued by the company – at a price if they can afford it.
For example, CSL in Australia is producing the AstraZenica vaccine under licence. It must pay for the licence which specifies the conditions of use, such as quantity that can be manufactured, where it can be sold, who it can be sold to, etc. There is no transparency as to any of these conditions or the price paid.
Under some agreements the technology holder maintains control over the vaccine component (active ingredient) and prevents the licensee from manufacturing it, hence creating dependency on the technology holder for the supply of the vaccine component
“These agreements also depend on the ‘willingness’ of the technology holder to license at all and as such are failing to mobilise global manufacturing capacity and diversifying supply options, on transparent terms that prioritise boosting global supply of the vaccine components and the final product. For instance, Moderna and Pfizer have yet to enter into license agreements with developing country manufacturers allowing for technology transfer and manufacture to supply developing countries,” the letter to the WTO stated.
Pfizer plans to shift some production to manufacturing booster doses for rich countries even while some low- and middle-income countries have not had an initial vaccine. It also intends to raise the price of its vaccine to an estimated US$150-175 (AU$194-226) per dose in what it considers the post-acute pandemic phase.
ATTEMPTS TO REMOVE BARRIERS THWARTED
“We believe that the way forward should be to remove barriers towards the development, production and approval of vaccines, therapeutics and other medical technologies necessary for the prevention, containment and treatment of the COVID-19 pandemic, so that more manufacturers, especially from developing countries, may independently contribute to the global supply. Global supply should not be dependent on the purely commercial prerogatives and exclusive rights of pharmaceutical companies holding the technology. There is simply too much at stake,” the letter said.
In line with these sentiments, in October last year the Indian and South African governments sought a temporary waiver of patents on COVID vaccines by the WTO to facilitate production in more countries, including some third world countries that have the capacity to do so.
WTO decisions are made by consensus. The proposal is strongly opposed by the EU, Switzerland, US, UK, Japan, and Canada – countries where Big Pharma is based – and so far, Australia has withheld support. The waiver has the support of more than one hundred member countries.
These rich countries over-ordered vaccines, and now they are preventing access to low-middle income countries at the WTO.
It is outrageous that these countries and Big Pharma put profits before the lives of billions of people in lower-income countries. It is forecast that Big Pharma will make close to US$40 (AU$52) billion in sales from COVID-19 vaccines in 2021. Pfizer has been accused of bullying Latin American governments in negotiations for vaccines, demanding that they put up sovereign assets as guarantees against any civil suits that people who experience bad side effects might file.
In addition, lower income countries have been charged two to three times what the wealthier countries are paying for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. (newrepublic.com)
In an open letter, more than seven hundred health professionals and academics in Australia have called on the Morrison government to play a leadership role at the WTO for the removal of barriers to increasing vaccine production, diagnostic tests, oxygen and other equipment. The letter was co-written by Public Health Association of Australia and Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
“To stem the pandemic, we must immediately address it where it is the biggest threat. The longer COVID-19 circulates unconstrained, the higher the risk of new variants. If we only focus on vaccinating Australia, we’ll prolong this pandemic for Australians. The new mutations, such as in South Africa and India, are more resistant to vaccines and could undermine global vaccination gains,” Jennifer Tierney, MSF Australia Executive Director says in the letter.
The Australian government is providing ventilators, PPE, and oxygen for India and Papua New Guinea and other financial assistance for the Indo-Pacific region. But it could and should do more. At the domestic level, it has shut out desperate Australian citizens, who fear for their lives and wish to return to Australia. The refusal to bring them home is political and racist. The threat of a jail term for anyone who does return, is proving counterproductive. Bring them home now! Move as quickly as possible to build dedicated quarantine facilities.
The government must show leadership internationally.
CLAIMS DON’T STACK UP
Big Pharma attempts to defend the system of patents and high monopoly prices charged, claiming they need to recoup research costs and risks that a vaccine or medication might not be successful. That to do otherwise would act as a disincentive to innovation.
Trade Minister Dan Tehan repeats the line of Big Pharma: “we’ve got to make sure that there are some protections in place for the millions of dollars that has gone into the research to create these vaccines.”
Really! Most of the research is funded by the public purse and the production is by the private sector which pockets the profits. For example, the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine was around 97-99 per cent funded by public money.
Big Pharma is monopoly capital at its worst. Their conduct is criminal. The motive force driving all pharmaceutical research, development, production and distribution should be for public good, not profits. Private, monopoly ownership and control over vaccines and other medical products is in conflict with the human rights of people. “Intellectual property” should be shared globally and made accessible to all governments for the benefit of their people.
Pfizer has almost doubled its sales projections for the vaccine this year, from US$15 billion to around US$26 billion and is already preparing for possible annual booster shots. The corporation’s CEO Albert Bourla has described the pooling of intellectual property as “dangerous” and “nonsense.” There have been more than three million recorded COVID deaths and the number is set to rise.
“I need to be blunt: the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus WHO Director-General warned.
“The recent emergence of rapidly-spreading variants makes the rapid and equitable rollout of vaccines all the more important.” Ghebreyesus described the need for rapid action as “a strategic and economic imperative.”
The WHO launched the COVID-19-Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) initiative calling on pharmaceutical companies to commit to transparent, non-exclusive global voluntary licensing. It was stillborn as Big Pharma rejected the proposal.
At present, governments and the lives of people around the world are held to ransom by Big Pharma. Production and distribution of vaccines depend on the willingness of Big Pharma to sign bilateral agreements with countries.
GOVT MUST ACT
All pharmaceutical companies should be owned and democratically run by the public sector. CSL, a major Australian producer of vaccines including AstraZenica’s COVID-19 and flu shots, should be restored to public ownership.
Public funding of R&D should be restricted to public institutions with the innovations belonging to the public sector. The practice of social risk and private profit should end.
Australia should play a leading role at the WHO, WTO, and other public fora by advocating the free transfer of technology and sharing of knowledge and know-how with lower income countries, in fact with all countries.
Failure to cooperate and share technology and know-how is self-defeating. No one will be safe until everyone is safe.