Could the rich world’s obscene selfishness on vaccine equality ultimately help bring about a fairer economy? If we fight for it.
When diplomats start speaking like campaigners, you know geopolitics is starting to shift. This week United Nations chief Antonio Guterres lectured world leaders on the disgraceful state of vaccine inequality, calling it “a moral indictment of the state of our world. It is an obscenity.” A fortnight earlier, World Health Organization head Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the press: “I will not stay silent when the companies and countries that control the global supply of vaccines think the world’s poor should be satisfied with leftovers.”
At last week’s UN general assembly, leaders from across the Global South united in condemning Western governments and the pharmaceutical corporations sitting on vaccine patents which they are refusing to share. Pedro Castillo, newly elected president of Peru, demanded an international agreement to ensure equal, universal access to the coronavirus vaccine, saying the pandemic has “demonstrated the inability of the international system to cooperate under the principles of efficiency and solidarity”.
Peru, after all, has suffered the highest death rate of any country in the world, with new figures suggesting 200,000 deaths for a country with 32 million people. To date, it has vaccinated less than 30 percent of its population.
What has particularly angered Global South leaders, from the political left and right alike, is that while Western countries like the United States and United Kingdom are now offering third shots to their own citizens, many countries have been unable to offer the majority of their population even a first shot. Six billion doses have been administered globally, but three-quarters have gone to just 10 countries. Britain has fully vaccinated 67 percent of its people, while the figure for the whole African continent is three percent, and low-income countries have only been able to inoculate a pitiful 0.5 percent of their people.
The rich world’s stance is not simply “me first”, but “me first, second, third and fourth”.
Pushed by the global outrage this has understandably caused, US President Joe Biden promised an additional 500 million vaccine donations this week, taking the US total to 1.1 billion. This dwarfs the trickle coming from the rest of the rich world, but it is still far too little, which is why there is an increasing feeling among many Southern leaders that donations are not sufficient. The problem lies in a global economy that has allowed a handful of transnational corporations to patent – and thereby monopolise – these vaccines.
To get an idea of why these monopolies are causing such anger, you only need to take a look at new figures from the pharmaceutical industry. By the end of the year, we now expect wealthy countries to have a surplus of 1.2 billion vaccine doses, with a whopping 12 billion doses having been produced in total. But the very day after this huge number was announced, the international distribution mechanism, Covax, on which most countries depend for their vaccines, told us that it will miss its target for vaccinations by more than 500 million doses this year.
In other words, despite a surplus of vaccines in the rich world, the Global South has far fewer than the tiny amounts it was led to expect. While supply gets better, inequality gets worse. It is reminiscent of the Indian famines the British Empire presided over in the 19th century, where the problem was not an absolute lack of food, but rather a market system which prioritised the money of the rich over the needs of the poor.
Today, wealthy governments have handed control of this pandemic to the market, in the form of gigantic transnational corporations, who have taken vast sums of public money and refused to share the resulting know-how.
This week, Amnesty International accused these corporations of fuelling a human rights crisis. They pointed out that Pfizer and BioNTech, makers of a leading cutting-edge vaccine, have delivered nine times more vaccines to Sweden than to all low-income countries combined. Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna will earn over $133bn in revenues by the end of 2022 on these vaccines. Yet none of them – nor indeed any other Western producer – will openly share their know-how so others can produce the vaccines we need. They thrive on the secrecy which boosts their profits.
So waiving the patents that create these monopolies and sharing the know-how behind the vaccines would allow all countries with the capacity to do so to produce their own medicines. It has become a key demand of many Global South governments and the flourishing “People’s Vaccine” solidarity movement. Sadly, while negotiations around this issue have been ongoing in the WTO for nearly a year, the proposal is still being blocked by European countries, most notably Britain and Germany.
This explains the anger seen this week. For many, the international system has been proven morally bankrupt, and clearly, most countries cannot rely on the global trade system to provide the medicines they desperately need. They need control over their medicines. That is why the fight at the WTO to suspend patents is so vitally important.
Fed up with the games of countries like Britain and Germany, Global South countries, backed by the WHO, are starting to take matters into their own hands. One of the most exciting developments is the “mRNA hub” which aims to research the cutting-edge technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and produce medicines directly in southern Africa. Shamefully, Moderna, whose CEO has become a billionaire on the back of his company’s publicly funded vaccine, is refusing to share the recipe. Undeterred, the hub is going to try to mimic the Moderna vaccine anyway – and produce it without permission.
Indonesia has now asked to be considered as a location for a similar Asian hub. Given mRNA’s revolutionary potential to inoculate not simply against COVID-19, but to produce vaccines or treatments for HIV, cancers, malaria and more, this is a huge development. It means this revolutionary technology could indeed be prised out of the hands of the profit-obsessed transnationals, to create a very different medical research system.
It isn’t just the world’s ability to deal with medical emergencies that is under the spotlight. Many countries are now rightly distrustful that the rules of the global economy will not allow them to deal fairly with the serious questions we face, from climate change to the threat to our human rights posed by the ever-powerful Big Tech lobby. And perhaps the fledgling experiment with building a Global South pharmaceutical system shows the way we need to go in other areas too.
If the international system is failing most of humanity, it needs to be rebuilt, not through endless negotiations which the wealthy can block, but by creating a new reality here and now.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.