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The vaccine: Fair access or global apartheid?


(March 29, 2021) — Despite all the frustrations of the vaccine distribution system, most of us will likely get vaccinated some time this year. Not true for folks in poor countries. Some experts are saying many will not get their shots until 2024. Three years from now!

Rich countries have contracted with Big Pharma companies for existing and upcoming supplies. The United States, Canada, and EU countries have reserved enough doses for two to four times their entire populations. So far 130 countries have not gotten a single dose of vaccine. Why? Pharmaceutical corporations have gotten a web of patents on vaccines, production methods, testing data, etc., to be able to throttle supply and maintain extremely profitable prices.

This is a moral and ethical issue: What is it about my life that is more important than an African villager’s? It is a public good issue — no one is safe until we all are. And it is a racial justice issue; the countries left out are mainly Black and brown.

Debt and Trade Agreements 

There is economic colonialism involved here. Over the last 40 years, indebted low- and middle-income countries (LMIC’s) have paid billions to rich-country banks and “investors.” To make these payments, debtor nations have cut back on their health systems, even though health care is fundamental to life and to development.

Now COVID economic crises have slammed poor countries. Wealthy countries have recently offered paltry amounts of debt relief without forcing private-sector lenders to do the same. Poor country childhood vaccination rates (not for COVID, but for measles, etc.) have dropped precipitously; 600 million more folks have dropped below World Bank poverty lines.

So-called trade agreements since NAFTA in 1994, have been negotiated mainly for the benefit of large corporations (negotiated by Clinton, never forget), mainly to allow for the outsourcing of good jobs to low-wage, low-regulation countries.

In addition, corporations, especially in pharmaceuticals and tech, have loaded these agreements with intellectual property protections, extending and enforcing their patents. (These are the TRIPS agreements, in international trade jargon.) This has become a key corporate strategy – enshrine provisions into trade language. It is a backdoor way to constrain national policies. This means medicine and vaccine patents give Pharma hugely profitable monopoly rights. During the AIDS crisis in the ’80s, popular protest in the Global South forced some concessions, allowing patent waivers and some local production of retroviral AIDS drugs. But it took struggle and lost time and lives.

Gates, Always Gates 

The Gates Foundation, along with the World Health Organization, has worked with many countries to set up COVAX, which would buy and distribute a very limited supply of vaccines to LMIC countries. The previous administration refused to help; at least Biden is going to join. But the needed funds are not coming in, and even if they do it would mean only about 10 percent of all poor country populations would get the vaccine, undoubtedly bypassing the very poor in those countries. So, then, would workers in Bangladeshi fast-fashion industries not be vaccinated while rich-country consumers flock back into stores? How about workers in the lithium mines supplying batteries for our electric cars? Mexican agricultural workers growing tomatoes and avocados for us?

We do not need charity; we need justice. India and South Africa have proposed at the WTO to suspend pharmaceutical monopolies – a TRIPS waiver — during the pandemic (the United States under Trump blocked it). Doctors Without Borders demanded that all vaccine deals between companies and countries, including cost and trials data, be made public.

Fine, but justice demands more. Big Pharma and rich countries must be forced to share the know-how and the intellectual property other countries need. There must be technical assistance for countries to build their own manufacturing facilities. Trade rules must be rewritten.

Governments put billions into research and demand nothing from hugely profitable companies. These corporations want to be seen as our saviors during this pandemic. But they make billions and keep the patents, which allow them to decide who gets the vaccine and at what price — who lives and who dies. The balance between the power they have and the public good is way off. That has to change!

Lives matter more than profit.

Michael Righi is a retired economics professor and a member of the Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action (PSARA). This column originally appeared in the PSARA Advocate newsletter and is reported here with the author’s permission.

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