Progressive campaigners on Wednesday denounced G20 nations for offering lip service to the importance of treating coronavirus vaccines as a "global public good" while simultaneously blocking an effort to lift restrictive patent protections and share vaccine recipes with the developing world.
After a virtual meeting Wednesday afternoon, finance ministers from the G20 countries released an eight-page joint communique (pdf) declaring that they "recognize the role of Covid-19 immunization as a global public good and reiterate our support to all collaborative efforts, especially to the four pillars of the Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) and its COVAX Facility."
"G20 countries have privatized the medical knowledge behind Covid vaccines, artificially limiting supply and preventing most of the world producing the vaccines we so desperately need."
—Daniel Willis, Global Justice Now
But the document does not express support for a South Africa and India-led proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) calling for a temporary suspension of vaccine-related intellectual property rights, which have kept production largely under the control of profit-driven pharmaceutical companies.
More than 100 countries worldwide have backed the patent waiver proposal. While Argentina and Indonesia have joined South Africa and India in supporting the waiver, the remaining G20 member nations—including the U.S., U.K., and Canada—have been either non-committal or actively opposed to the idea, leaving the deeply unequal status quo intact.
The result has been a disaster for low-income nations, many of which are struggling to administer a single dose of the coronavirus vaccine as rich countries—where the world's largest pharmaceutical companies are based—hoard much of the existing supply.
In a statement Wednesday, Daniel Willis of the U.K.-based advocacy group Global Justice Now said "it's very nice that the G20 see Covid-19 immunization 'as a global public good,' but the reality is that G20 countries have privatized the medical knowledge behind Covid vaccines, artificially limiting supply and preventing most of the world producing the vaccines we so desperately need."
"They should have taken this moment to commit to putting the health of people across the world ahead of Big Pharma's profits," added Willis.
I love this line from the #G20 today: "We recognize the role of COVID-19 immunization as a global public good." Then why did we privatize the medical knowledge and buy as many of the limited supply as we could get our hands on? #PeoplesVaccine https://t.co/O4uZuvi5UD
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Scientists have warned that failure to swiftly ensure global distribution of the coronavirus vaccine could allow vaccine-resistant variants to emerge and spread among unprotected populations, causing further devastation for developing countries and prolonging the deadly pandemic for the entire world.
"Rich countries are defending the interests of the pharmaceutical sector over other businesses and their economies as a whole. It is a bizarre act of financial and economic self-harm."
—Anna Marriott, Oxfam International
On top of the human costs of denying vaccines to poor nations, Oxfam International pointed out Tuesday that vaccine inequities could inflict enormous economic damage, costing the world up to $9.2 trillion in income losses.
Citing estimates published in a study by the International Chamber of Commerce earlier this year, Oxfam calculated that "the United States could lose up to $2,700 per person in household spending in 2021" due to the global economic impacts of highly unequal vaccine distribution.
"Rich countries are defending the interests of the pharmaceutical sector over other businesses and their economies as a whole," said Anna Marriott, Oxfam's public health manager. "It is a bizarre act of financial and economic self-harm. They are condemning everyone including their own citizens to suffer the consequences."
"The U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Japan, and Italy together could lose as much as $2.3 trillion in GDP this year unless they stop fighting on behalf of a handful of big drug companies to retain the intellectual property of the vaccine—despite this status quo plainly failing both them and everyone else," Marriott added. "It totally beggars belief."