Pharmaceutical corporations have acquired new notoriety in the last months thanks to the Covid-19 vaccines. AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna, and BioNTech are now firmly in the public’s pandemic-era consciousness.
But, whilst they are largely associated with the success of the vaccine and the ‘light at the end of the Covid tunnel’, their role is far from benign.
Greens and campaign organisations around Europe have been exposing how ‘big pharma’ is contributing to the ‘vaccine nationalism’ tussle for supplies we are witnessing between countries.
Last week, research by ONE revealed that rich countries are stockpiling many more vaccine doses than they have use for – leaving poor and middle-income countries with none.
The UK, plus Australia, Canada, Japan, the US and the EU 27, have already secured a total of over three billion doses of approved vaccines – almost one billion more doses than they would need to vaccinate all their citizens. The excess doses in the hands of rich countries would be sufficient to vaccinate the entire adult population of Africa.
“The COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t end with a vaccine. It ends when everyone can get one,” ONE said in a statement.
The data shows that the UK has secured more than 113 million surplus doses. And that figure is an underestimation, given no-one expects 100 per cent of the population to receive the jab.
Sadly, such unjust distribution was entirely foreseeable. As Green World reported nearly a year ago, ‘equitable access for all’ is definitely not what big pharma is all about.
This stark inequality in who is getting access to immunity was the topic of a ‘Vaccine solidarity, not vaccine nationalism’ discussion recently hosted by Green Party spokesperson Molly Scott Cato. At the event, Roz Scourse, from Médecins Sans Frontières, explained that we need not be in this situation of scarcity of supply in the first place – vaccine nationalism is a consequence of artificial supply constraints caused by pharmaceutical monopolies.
A ‘rip off’
The pharmaceutical giants have received billions of public funding to enable the research into and trialing of the vaccines. But, instead of retaining public ownership, governments have handed-over the Intellectual Property rights to the companies. So, while all kinds of exceptional measures have been taken to develop, trial and authorise the vaccines as quickly as possible – when it comes to ownership and control, its business-as-usual.
“Handing over public investment to private companies is where we went wrong. We need to reimagine the model from that point on. We need to maintain public control of the manufacture and distribution because that is what would maximise access – these should be global public goods,” Roz Scourse said at the event.
Larry Sanders, Green Party spokesperson on health issues has called the system ‘a complete rip off’.
Médecins Sans Frontières is calling for an open-source approach. If the knowledge, data and knowhow were available freely then manufacturers could be coming on-stream all over the world. This would prevent the whole global population from having to rely on a small number of companies – who can keep the prices high through exclusive deals.
Challenging the status-quo
In a joint call, Greens in the UK and the European Parliament have urged politicians to work together internationally to push back against profiteering by pharmaceutical companies.
First, they demand full transparency of negotiations and contracts for vaccine supplies.
“European citizens have invested in these vaccines and they have a right to know how their money has been used and the scale of profits made by drug companies,” they say.
As it stands, contract terms are not made public. What information we do have has come from leaks.
Then, Greens call for all Covid vaccines to be sold on the basis of open patents so that production can be sped up across the world. Specifically, they call for governments to support something called the TRIPS waiver.
In a status-quo-challenging move back in October, South Africa and India asked the World Trade Organization to grant a waiver on patents, trade secrets and other intellectual property (IP) for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. This would allow governments around the globe to cooperate freely with companies to supply life-saving vaccines, as well as testing technologies, treatments and other tools for combatting the pandemic.
An ‘unforgivable position’
Scandalously, rich countries – the same ones with more vaccines than they need! – are so far blocking the waiver. It’s no surprise that these rich nations are also where the pharma giants are head-quartered.
“To have rich countries blocking other countries to start producing, while they sit on their own supply, is an unforgivable position,” as Roz Scourse put it.
The UK is among the blockers and is hiding behind the COVAX scheme. This is the UN-led global ‘pool procurement’ programme for Covid vaccinations which aims to increase the equity of distribution. The UK has given £548 million to COVAX. The scheme has secured £4.3billion and aims to deliver more than two billion doses to people in 190 countries before the end of the year. But it doesn’t just depend on cash – the critical challenge is supply. COVAX does not have a supply of doses for the countries it’s supposed to serve – and we’re back to the pharmaceutical monopolies.
“We are so dependent on big corporations whose main aim is to create profit for shareholders, not to end the global pandemic,” said Dutch Green MEP Kim van Sparrentak at the ‘Vaccine solidarity, not vaccine nationalism’ debate.
A declaration this week signed by 114 members of the European Parliament, including many Greens, urges EU governments and the European Commission not to block the TRIPS waiver at the WTO.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the need to ensure global open access to COVID-19 health technologies and to rapidly scale up their manufacturing and supply has been widely acknowledged. However … this has not yet translated into actionable realities,” the MEPs say.
We also need to pressure the UK Government.
You can sign this petition calling on the UK Government to ensure any vaccine developed with public money is made affordable and available to all, and reaches the most vulnerable everywhere.
You can ask governments to stop blocking the proposal for #NoCovidMonopolies at the WTO through a campaign on the Médecins Sans Frontières website.
Global Justice Now is also running a petition targeting the CEOs of big pharma directly, asking them to urgently lift the patents on lifesaving Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.
In the midst of a global pandemic that has disrupted life-as-we-knew-it around the world, surely this is the time to act to reign in the disease and at the same time the power of the pharmaceutical industry. And, instead of fueling vaccine nationalism, to foster vaccine solidarity.