Vaccine nationalism is killing us. We need an internationalist approach


We have the power to end this pandemic. We have the technology, materials and productive capacity to vaccinate the world against Covid-19 this year. We can save millions of lives, protect billions of livelihoods and reclaim trillions of dollars worth of economic activity along the way.

But instead, our countries are now moving into the pandemic’s deadliest phase. Mutant strains are spreading into regions where the vaccines are not only scarce; they have barely arrived. At present rates of vaccination, the pandemic will continue to rage until at least 2024.

This is not a coincidence. The system of pharmaceutical patents at the World Trade Organization was designed to prioritize corporate profit over human life. Even in the midst of a deadly pandemic, a coalition of pharmaceutical companies and global north governments refuses to re-order these priorities – blocking patent waivers, refusing to share vaccine technologies and underfunding multilateral responses.

That is why government ministers and health officials from around the world are convening the Summit for Vaccine Internationalism. Hosted by the Progressive International, the Summit’s aim is simple: to develop a common plan to produce and distribute vaccines for all – with concrete commitments to pool technology, invoke patent waivers and invest in rapid production.

The G7 has proven unwilling and incapable of delivering on this promise. The central banks of the world’s major economies mobilized roughly $9tn to respond to the economic shock of the Covid-19 pandemic, acting swiftly and decisively to protect the interests of their investors.

The cost of global vaccination, by contrast, is estimated at just $23bn, or 0.25% of this monetary response. That number would dramatically decrease if the governments in the US, EU and UK compelled their pharmaceutical companies to share technology with manufacturers around the world – an idea that commands large majority support in the United States, where taxpayers have footed the entire bill for the development of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine.

People wait to receive Covid-19 vaccine shots at a vaccination center in Mumbai, India.
People wait to receive Covid-19 vaccine shots at a vaccination center in Mumbai, India. Photograph: Divyakant Solanki/EPA

But the will to do so has yet to manifest. Even the 1bn doses that the G7 pledged to the world at its meeting in Cornwall has now fallen to 870m, of which only 613m are truly new.

The G7 plan is not only stingy. It is also stupid: the ICC has estimated a cost of $9.2tn to the global economy for the failure to deliver vaccines to every country. And – in the final count – it may also prove suicidal: the longer the virus travels, the more often it mutates, and the more viciously it may boomerang back to the rich countries that are already rolling out vaccination programs.

But the problem runs much deeper than the number of doses in the G7 pledge. The Covid-19 virus will continue to circulate across the world for the foreseeable future. Without a transformation in the global health system, governments everywhere will have to shell out billions for annual purchases of boosters from big pharma corporations like Pfizer – or beg the US government to come to the rescue.

We cannot wait for the G7 to find its common sense – or its conscience. That is why the Summit for Vaccine Internationalism will strive for solutions that undermine – rather than reinforce – the dependency of these governments on big pharma and the countries where they are headquartered.

To do so, our governments are considering three key proposals.

The first is focused on intellectual property. Pleas for big pharma to share technology have fallen on deaf ears. One year after the launch of the WHO’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), not a single company has donated its technical knowhow, choosing instead to retain complete control of supply. As countries with vaccine candidates and manufacturers, we will consider a platform for sharing ongoing progress with candidates, trial protocols and data – setting the stage for real transparency and allowing local vaccine manufacturers world over to produce the critical doses of Covid-19 vaccines.

The second is focused on manufacturing capacity. A dangerous myth continues to circulate that developing countries cannot produce vaccines for themselves. This is simply untrue. Attempts by local manufacturers of vaccines, biologics, and drugs to produce Covid-19 vaccines have been rejected by pharmaceutical companies that are keen to control the world’s supply within their closed ranks.

Every vaccine has two elements: the legal rights to make the vaccine, and the knowledge about how to make it. If vaccine recipes are shared – and the opportunity to produce them is provided – then we can adapt our factories to produce the vaccines required. We will consider investing in public industry in each of our nations and equipping our factories to produce the vaccines required, not only for our own countries but for each other.

We will do what we can to end this pandemic together by sharing the capacities we have. For example, where one of us has greater capacity to regulate Covid-19 vaccines and treatments we will lend these capacities to countries that don’t.

The third proposal is focused on collective disobedience. Certain provisions to override intellectual property protections already exist, for example, through the 2001 Doha declaration of the WTO. Yet countries have been hesitant to do so due to fear of sanctions from certain governments and reprisals from big pharma. We will consider how we could introduce national legislation to override intellectual property protections collectively, introducing a credible threat to the monopoly pharmaceutical model currently at play.

Together, these proposals can begin to shift the entire logic of the global health system – from nationalism to internationalism, from charity to solidarity, and from competition to cooperation. The Summit is a first step on this journey of transformation.



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