Join Hafta-Ichi to Research the article “We can’t let the WTO get in the way of a ‘people’s vaccine’ | Coronavirus”
We know how to end this pandemic. Our politicians may be sending mixed signals, but the science is clear: we need diagnostics to track the virus, medicines to treat the virus, and – above all – a vaccine to prevent its spread. Researchers around the world are now working to fast-track the development of a vaccine from a duration of one decade to just one year. With over a million lives lost, millions more driven into poverty, and worldwide economic collapse, the prospect of a successful vaccine is the only hope on the horizon of a disastrous year.
But who will get the coronavirus vaccines and when? There are two big problems: whether they will be affordable, and whether there will be enough of them to go around. The root of both these problems is not the science – it is the web of intellectual property monopolies that surround the vaccines, as well as almost all the diagnostics and medicines that are of use in the pandemic. And the root of all those monopolies is a rule embedded in the World Trade Organization called Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) that was hustled in after aggressive lobbying from Pfizer and IBM, with the full support of rich country governments. Twenty-five years after its introduction, it has done its job – curtailing access to life-saving medicines and vaccines, boosting the profits of major pharmaceutical companies, hobbling public health, and finally, prolonging our exit from the coronavirus pandemic.
A solution is at hand. Earlier this month, India and South Africa, two of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, formally petitioned the WTO to suspend Trips for all members, on the grounds that it created “barriers to the timely access to affordable medical products” around the world. “There are significant concerns,” the governments of both countries wrote, about “how these will be made available promptly, in sufficient quantities and at [an] affordable price to meet global demand.”
India and South Africa join a chorus of countries in demanding a break from the punishing toll of the western multinational-led intellectual property rights regime. Back in June, the African Union issued its own communique to the World Health Organization, calling on all countries to “make full use of legal measures… to ensure that monopolies do not stand in the way of access.” The 55 member states of the African Union insisted on removing “all obstacles” in the quest to develop a “people’s vaccine.”.
The obstacles are real – pharmaceutical corporations key among them. Phrma, the lobbying organization of the US pharmaceutical industry and the largest lobbying operation in the country, claims that “strong patent protections are fundamental to the creation of new treatments that extend and improve patients’ lives” and spends over $120m each year to persuade policymakers of the same. It is little surprise, then, that governments in the global north are lining up behind them, throwing billions of dollars of new public money their way, with few if any strings attached. A recent report from Oxfam suggested that a few rich countries have already bought up more than half the future supply of leading Covid-19 vaccine contenders.
The problem with this approach is that it simply doesn’t work for the world – and pharmaceutical industry executives know it. This is the third time in the last 20 years that a coronavirus has made the leap from animals to humans: Sars coronavirus in 2002, Mers coronavirus in 2012, and Sars-CoV-2 in 2019. Yet the precious patent protections of the pharmaceutical industry have yielded little investment in our pandemic preparedness. Why? “Because there is no real incentive to do this, no financial incentive,” Johnson & Johnson’s chief scientific officer admitted back in January.
Vaccine nationalism is therefore not only a scientific dead-end – the virus knows no borders – but also a strategic blunder: private extraction of public wealth on which it relies will only serve to enrich pharmaceutical corporations at the expense of public health, even in the wealthy countries that plan to hoard vaccines. Vaccine candidates can fail at proving to be safe and effective even late into the trial pipeline, and the richest countries on earth are having trouble keeping up with the number of vaccine candidates on offer. Then there is the prospect of having to negotiate access to a vaccine from outside the multinational pharmaceutical industry, perhaps from Russia or China.
This is where the petition from the Indian and South African governments takes on crucial global importance. It would go a long way in solving our immediate problems: a waiver from the WTO would remove intellectual property obstacles and allow more countries to locally manufacture diagnostics and treatments, thereby reducing prices as well. While the petition may not be a silver bullet for vaccines, since western pharmaceutical companies would voluntarily need to share their know-how and technology in addition to giving up their intellectual property, it would certainly build up the moral pressure for them to do so.
A suspension of pharmaceutical monopolies, even temporary, is what the world needs. It would mark a crucial turn in the right direction, in a moment of exhaustion and panic. As the Covid-19 pandemic aggressively advances, the WTO has the opportunity to sway the planet away from monopoly medicine, and towards a new planetary health system. As members of the WTO prepare for the Triips council meeting this week, their choices could not be starker. People or profit; a people’s vaccine or a debilitating vaccine apartheid. The world is watching.
The Progressive International Covid-19 Response Working Group sent a letter to the Members of the World Trade Organization in support of the Waiver Proposal put forth by India and South Africa. The letter was signed by the following members:
Benny Kuruvilla, Focus on the Global South
Joseph Purugganan, Focus on the Global South
Shalmali Guttal, Focus on the Global South
Third World Network
Achal Prabala, researcher and activist, AccessIBSA
Burcu Kilic, Research Director, Access to Medicines, Public Citizen
Dana Brown, Director of the Next System Project, The Democracy Collaborative
Helen Yaffe, Lecturer in economic and social history, University of Glasgow
Laurie MacFarlane, Economics editor, openDemocracy
Linsey McGoey, Professor of sociology, University of Essex
Nancy Krieger, Professor of social epidemiology, Harvard T.H. ChanSchool of Public Health
Tithi Bhattacharya, Director of global studies, Purdue University
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: We can’t let the WTO get in the way of a ‘people’s vaccine’ | Coronavirus