Greed plus vaccine inequality
"Doublespeak can only fuel more public anger."
Sometime back, Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Trenas was quoted as having said “Pilipino din naman kami” as he angrily decried the seeming imbalance in the distribution of the much-awaited COVID-19 vaccines. Trenas’ outcry came in the wake of several other outbursts from local executives, mostly in the Visayas and Mindanao, one of whom, Kidapawan City Mayor Joseph Evangelista, even went to the extent of saying the city has already advanced funds for the purchase of the vaccines through the tripartite system imposed by the IATF. This seeming imbalance remains a contentious issue as the country aspires for possible herd immunity by year end.
The problem, of course, is the availability of the vaccines. No matter how rigorous, fair and balanced the IATF would like the vaccine roll out to be, it is constrained by the flow of supplies. Even as we have ordered and in fact paid in advance for the vaccines supply remains unpredictable as the accredited manufacturers four of which, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford/AstraZeneca and Johnson&Johnson, being publicly listed corporations are circumscribed by profit goals and increasingly by their own government’s policies which, as of late, have become more politicized than ever. While those producing the three other WHO accredited vaccines, SinoVac, SinoPharm and Sputnik V, do not have to answer to private shareholders’ profit expectations, they are nonetheless part of their government’s political plays.
Which is why there is a growing international outcry for the fair and equitable distribution of vaccines worldwide if we are to accelerate the push towards a global new normal. But that is easier said than done.
As food and agriculture specialist Devinder Sharma noted in an article in Tribune of India, as of today only one in 500 among the low-income countries have received a vaccine shot against one in four among the high income countries. The inequality has been such that in the latest meeting of the G-7 countries the WHO reiterated its request for the members to increase their vaccine contribution to the agency’s COVAX facility noting that poor countries have so far received just over 2 percent of the supply while the developed countries have walked away with 87 percent, the rest shared by middle income nations favored by the manufacturers and their governments.
Indeed, as Sharma explained, instead of pushing for a speedier vaccination drive globally, the Big Four Western vaccine manufacturers and, somehow in league with their governments, have been using all the technicalities in the books such as the patent protection granted under the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) Agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to hold the world literally
to ransom. Thus, instead of parcelling up their manufacturing requirements with accredited facilities in other countries to speed up production, they have limited these to just a few. Even the agreement which AstraZeneca had with its Indian partner, Serum international, was so rigid that the Indian facility was not even able to produce as much for the needs of that country’s dying population during the surge some months back.
What riles other countries is the fact that not only Big Pharma, but also some of the developed countries, have been hoarding the vaccines and opposing any move to temporarily lift the patent protection. The US was hoarding 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine after the US FDA dilly dallied its approval for domestic use. Of course, after months of wrangling and global push, it has decided to share the hoard with other countries through COVAX.
Sharma noted that although India, South Africa and some other developing countries have petitioned the WTO to allow a waiver on patent protection for the Covid-19 vaccines, the rich trading bloc — the US, UK, EU, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, Norway, Brazil and Australia — are averse to any such move, thereby denying these countries the access to technology to go in for large-scale production of the vaccines.
Said Sharma: “The pressure to oppose the IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) waiver comes from the pharmaceutical giants (and lobbyists) who have in a signed letter to the US President appealed to disregard the joint proposal put forward by India and South Africa, stating that it was without any evidence. It also urged the US Administration to continue to ‘oppose the TRIPs intellectual property waiver’. Hollywood, too, is siding with the pharmaceutical industry.”
Although the TRIPs Agreement provides for a patent monopoly for 20 years there exists a clause in the same agreement allowing developing countries the option to use compulsory licensing in times of national emergencies to permit local manufacturers to use patented technology without worrying about the possible infringement problems, there has been no concerted effort yet on the part of the Western governments to make that move which has, of course, been a cause for serious concern.
What makes matters even more disconcerting is the fact that these governments have allowed Big Pharma to dictate the terms of the game, so to speak. Sharma advised, for example, that Pfizer has offered its vaccines to India at a ‘not-for-profit' price, but was quiet on the patent issue. The company’s chairman Albert Bourla, was quoted as having claimed that the company was “..committed to providing equitable and affordable vaccines to people around the globe..” Of course, this claimed “offer” came as an afterthought in the wake of reports that the US pharmaceutical giant was asking some Latin American countries for military bases and sovereign assets as a guarantee in exchange for supplying vaccines. Wow.
In its negotiations with Argentina, the reports noted, Pfizer asked that the government put its bank reserves, military bases and embassy buildings as collateral. In the case of Brazil, it asked for military bases, sovereign assets and an international fund to write off any expenses arising from probable lawsuits. Both deals fell through.
This case of doublespeak can only fuel more public anger as these favoured companies all of whom were showered with loads of public financing to accelerate research and manufacturing in the face of the COVID-19 surge globally are reporting record profits and more to come as they control vaccine production. Pfizer alone, for example, is expected to swell its vaccine profits this year by $15 billion. This comes at a time when a horrible surge in virus infections is likely to happen for years to come pushing hundreds of millions of people specially in the poorer countries at risk for want of vaccines. But Big Pharma’s greed and their government’s seeming acquiescence will not go unpunished somehow. There will come a day of reckoning and that may not be far off as well. They cannot stay safely in isolation enjoying their hoards as the virus ravages the earth and hundreds of millions of people suffer from their greed.