Activists from around the world met on March 2nd, as part of the global campaign to stop the World Trade Organization from putting millions of lives in peril. Pierre Beaudet reports from this Global Dialogue event.
A grave situation
According to Edgardo Lander, the fight against the current pandemic will not be effective unless the entire world has universal access to free vaccines. In the present system where production is controlled by a handful of large transnational corporations (known as “Big Pharma”), this cannot happen because these corporations monopolize the “rights” to the vaccine thanks to trade related intellectual property agreements. As a result, the poorest countries do not have the means to purchase these expensive vaccines. For the South African researcher Fatima Hassan, a system of medical apartheid is in place. Around the world, around 100 million people have fallen sick due to COVID-19 and more than 2 million have died. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than three quarters of the vaccinations have occurred in only 10 countries which represent nearly 60% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The WHO also states that less than 27% of the population in the Global South will receive the vaccines by the end of 2021.
Watch the event here:
A completely inadequate global response
Up until now, the answer has been to provide vaccines as part of the COVAX program, managed as a public-private partnership. However, the process remains obscure. We do not know how or under what conditions the vaccines will be distributed. Even the elected officials of the different countries are allegedly not informed. The entire process is grounded in a world order that gives priority to the protection of trade related intellectual property rights, even in the midst of a deadly public health crisis.
30 years ago, a similar story unfolded
The current crisis is a tragic repetition of the first years of the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) pandemic. In the period of 1980-1990, millions of people died because they did not have access to antiretroviral drugs produced by Big Pharma. An enormous international campaign launched by South African organizations managed to force the WTO to accept a temporary suspension of intellectual property rights on the vaccine. Quickly, many countries such as Brazil, India, South African and Thailand managed to produce and import generic versions which made the medicine accessible, which is how the situation was contained to a certain extent. Today, according to Fatima Hassan, the world must not make the same mistakes. The answer to the pandemic should not rest on voluntary cooperation but on emergency programs, including measures to forcibly make the vaccines accessible.
Solidarity over profits
Vittorio Agnoletto explains that currently in Europe, three large pharmaceutical companies were mandated by the European Union to produce and deliver vaccines. This quickly devolved into chaos. This is because the 27 member States played their own games and imported medicine left and right, even from Russia and China. Some countries manage, others a lot less in this seemingly endless rat race. The Italian doctor is among thousands of others in Europe who have launched a petition for States to cease giving their responsibilities up to Big Pharma. They demand to know what is going on, who is producing what, according to which contracts and at what costs. They also want to know which companies were subsidized by the public funding that allows Big Pharma to benefit from the State. “We have already paid for these vaccines!” claims Agnoletto. More than 100,000 people have signed the petition, but according to the rules of the European Commission, it takes a million signatures to open an inquiry. In the meantime, social movements and NGOs are campaigning to support the South African and Indian initiative (for more details on this campaign, visit noprofitonpandemic.eu).
An artificial shortage
According to Jorge Bermudez, there are vaccine shortages in over 84 countries. Even the WHO admits that at the current pace, access to vaccines will not be universal until 2024. The current allocation program, COVAX, is largely insufficient. Moreover, it is subjugated to numerous constraints. It excludes vulnerable people such as the unemployed or semi-employed, homeless people, refugees and more. And yet, over 40 countries, such as Brazil with its Instituto Butantan, dispose of production installations that could be used to manufacture vaccines. Unfortunately, the right wing government in Brazil, rather than support the demands of South Africa, India and other governments, is stuck in a standstill. Brazil is now the country in the world which is the most affected by the pandemic, with a number of deaths that now surpasses all other countries, including the United States.
We must suspend the patents
Leena Menghaney believes that the rules on intellectual property rights do not make sense in a critical situation such as the one we are living today. “We would have to wait until 2033 for the patents to expire”. And yet, just as we said with the AIDS tragedy in Africa, we eventually found a way to override these norms. But up until now, pharmaceutical corporations and other manufacturers of essential products to fight against COVID-19 have shown no interest in adopting a different approach. Doctors Without Borders urges all governments to subscribe to the South African and Indian initiative in order to ensure that saving lives becomes our priority. The waiver must be held until the vaccines become massively available and until the point when the majority of the population develops immunity.
The greatest battle lies ahead
The issue at hand is not new. In Canada, explains Amir Khadir, the country disposed of local capacities for producing vaccines since the 1960s, which we saw when the Institut Armand-Frappier made vaccines against tuberculosis, poliomyelitis, diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus. Research was developed at universities thanks to public funding. In this way, vaccines for children became widely available and free. But with the neoliberal wave appearing in the 1980s, these institutions were privatized. Acquired for less than 4$ million by Biochem Parham, the Institut Armand-Frappier was sold 10 years later for 5$ billion to Shire, a British pharmaceutical company, which eventually offshored production to save on manufacturing costs. “We have to change all of this” claims Khadir. A campaign is underway to create a crown corporation mandated with regulating production and distribution or sale of pharmaceutical products.