"The unfair patent system is now one the biggest obstacles to defeating this virus."
That was the core critique from Nick Dearden, executive director of the U.K.-based advocacy group Global Justice Now, on Friday morning in response to news this week that South Africa is paying more than double for AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine compared to most countries in Europe.
According to a report by The Guardian, a Belgian minister leaked information revealing that European Union members are paying €1.78 ($2.16) per dose for the AstraZeneca vaccine. Meanwhile, even as the pharmaceutical giant has said it would cap the price at €2.50 (approx. $3) per dose, South Africa's deputy director general of health Anban Pillay confirmed to the newspaper that it was quoted a price of $5.25 per dose.
"The explanation we were given for why other high-income countries have a lower price is that they have invested in the [research and development], hence the discount on the price," Pillay told Business Day.
As Global Justice Now noted in a statement, the Thursday's news from South Africa came the same day it was revealed that the World Health Organization (WHO) initiative "to share the science and know-how for coronavirus medicines had received no contributions"—a disappointing outcome that campaigners said was the result of a kind of joint boycott by Big Pharma and wealthy governments.
"South Africa's desperate predicament is a symptom of the shocking failure of rich countries to deal with this virus in a fair and effective manner," said Dearden in his statement. "Like many African countries, cases are soaring in South Africa, yet many countries will find a European-style lockdown impossible. As cases spread, mutations will continue to manifest and threaten all of our efforts to contain this disease."
Crystal clear explanation from @nickdearden75 about the dangers and injustice of vaccinating whole populations of rich nations before protecting the most vulnerable in every country. Vaccines are publicly funded and govts need to break monopolies so they reach everyone everywhere https://t.co/xfMwSwEYKO— Heidi Chow (@hidschow) January 21, 2021
While pointing a finger at the global patent system which allows drug corporations to prevent mass production of generic alternatives and the sharing of life-saving technology, Dearden said the situation in South Africa exemplifies the injustice that is being felt—and will continue to be felt—when the people in poorer or less-developed nations are treated as second-class humans compared to their more wealthy counterparts.
"We are calling on AstraZeneca to explain how this pricing has happened, given their promise to cap charges," said Dearden. "This is the problem when you have essential medicines in the hands of big business, with almost no transparency as to pricing. We urgently need technology and patents placed in public hands so we can share this knowledge and produce more vaccines now. Our ability to defeat this virus fairly and effectively depends upon it."