Nine out of 10 people in nearly 70 low-income countries are unlikely to be inoculated against Covid-19 in 2021 because the majority of the most effective vaccines developed so far have been purchased by rich countries, leaving the world's poorest citizens susceptible to the worst consequences of the raging coronavirus pandemic, social justice advocates said Wednesday.
"Rich countries have enough doses to vaccinate everyone nearly three times over, whilst poor countries don't even have enough to reach health workers and people at risk."
—Dr. Mohga Kamal Yanni, People's Vaccine Alliance
According to an analysis by the People's Vaccine Alliance (PVA), "rich nations representing just 14 percent of the world's population have bought up 53 percent of all the most promising vaccines so far."
"Rich countries have enough doses to vaccinate everyone nearly three times over, whilst poor countries don't even have enough to reach health workers and people at risk," said Dr. Mohga Kamal Yanni, from the PVA.
Canada is the worst offender, having bought more doses per capita than any other country—"enough to vaccinate each Canadian five times," noted the PVA, a coalition that includes Amnesty International, Frontline AIDS, Global Justice Now, and Oxfam.
"No one should be blocked from getting a life-saving vaccine because of the country they live in or the amount of money in their pocket," said Anna Marriott, Oxfam's health policy manager.
"But unless something changes dramatically," she added, "billions of people around the world will not receive a safe and effective vaccine for Covid-19 for years to come."
The Guardian explained Wednesday how the current allocation of coronavirus vaccines continues to put the poor people around the world in harm's way:
Supplies of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, approved in the U.K. last week, will almost all go to rich countries—96% of doses have been bought by the west. The Moderna vaccine uses a similar technology, which also is claimed to have 95% efficacy, and is going exclusively to rich countries. The prices of both vaccines are high and access for low-income countries will be complicated by the ultra low temperatures at which they need to be stored.
By contrast, the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, which has 70% efficacy, is stable at normal fridge temperatures and the price has been set deliberately low for global access. The manufacturers have said 64% of doses will go to people in the developing world. The campaigners applaud this commitment, but said one company alone cannot supply the whole world. At most Oxford/AstraZeneca can reach 18% of the world's population next year.
The PVA analysis "found that 67 low and lower middle-income countries risk being left behind as rich countries move towards their escape route from this pandemic. Five of the 67—Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Ukraine—have reported nearly 1.5 million cases between them."
Global access to Covid-19 vaccines is entirely within the realm of possibility, as Common Dreams reported Tuesday. But in order to cheaply manufacture and equitably distribute an adequate vaccine supply, experts say governments must exercise their power to revoke the pharmaceutical industry's monopoly control and patent protections over products developed in large part thanks to public funds.
Scarcity is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, progressives argue, but rather an artificial scenario produced through legal frameworks that are friendly to corporations. As economist Dean Baker tweeted earlier this week, "We can help spread the dissemination of vaccines and treatments for the pandemic by suspending intellectual property restrictions."
"The current system, where pharmaceutical corporations use government funding for research, retain exclusive rights, and keep their technology secret to boost profits, could cost many lives."
An international campaign is attempting to enable the sufficient production and allocation of coronavirus vaccines by taking on the political-economic arrangements currently standing in the way of abundance.
Baker, along with economist Arjun Jayadev and public health activist Achal Prabhala, explained in an op-ed published Monday by the New York Times that there is a "proposal, put forward by India and South Africa in October, call[ing] on the World Trade Organization to exempt member countries from enforcing some patents, trade secrets, or pharmaceutical monopolies under the organization's agreement on trade-related intellectual property rights, known as TRIPs."
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"By our count, nearly 100 countries favor the proposal," the trio wrote, but Canada, the U.K, the U.S., and other powerful governments are actively blocking the effort. "Because almost all decisions at the WTO are made by consensus, a small number of countries can thwart the will of the majority, even a super majority."
"Mounting pressure from poor countries at the WTO should give the governments of rich countries leverage to negotiate with their pharmaceutical companies for cheaper drugs and vaccines worldwide," Prabhala, Jayadev, and Baker added.
The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) on Tuesday also advocated for "a global approach" to public health that ensures all people of the world—not just a select few—benefit from scientific breakthroughs.
"Right now, we're in a situation where the lion's share of the limited number of first doses have already been bought by a handful of countries like the U.S. and U.K., as well as the E.U., leaving very little for other countries in the short term," said Dr. Sidney Wong, executive co-director of MSF's Access Campaign.
"What we really want to see," Wong added, "is a rapid expansion of the overall global supply so there are more vaccines to go around and doses can be allocated according to the World Health Organization's public health criteria, not a country's ability to pay more than others."
According to Yanni of the PVA, "The current system, where pharmaceutical corporations use government funding for research, retain exclusive rights, and keep their technology secret to boost profits, could cost many lives."
Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen's Access to Medicines program, said in a statement late Monday that "the U.S. government can expand the supply of vaccines everywhere by scaling-up manufacturing, sharing technology with the WHO, and teaching the world to make safe and effective vaccines."
"What we really want to see is a rapid expansion of the overall global supply so there are more vaccines to go around and doses can be allocated according to the World Health Organization's public health criteria, not a country's ability to pay more than others."
—Dr. Sidney Wong, Doctors Without Borders
Confronting Big Pharma "is the right thing to do in the face of a global pandemic," wrote Prabhala, Jayadev, and Baker. "It is also the best way for the governments of rich countries to take care of their own populations, which in some cases experience more severe drug shortages than do people in far less affluent places."
As WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus argued in September, defeating the global pandemic is a prerequisite to reviving the international economy, so failing to inoculate the world's most impoverished people is not only cruel—it's also destined to prolong the crisis in every country.
"This pandemic is a global problem that requires a global solution," said Lois Chingandu, director of Frontline AIDS. "The global economy will continue to suffer so long as much of the world does not have access to a vaccine."
Politicians from the global south are calling on WTO member nations to support the India-South Africa proposal to temporarily suspend the intellectual property rights inhibiting the ramped-up creation and provision of vaccine doses to "everyone, everywhere."
The choice is clear, according to advocacy organization Global Justice Now. World leaders can either insist that medicine is a public good and guarantee the universal availability of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, or prioritize patent rules over the plight of vulnerable populations, thereby ushering in a completely avoidable humanitarian disaster: