In August last year, in the midst of the on-going global COVID-19 pandemic, Nigeria, as the last country on the African continent, declared itself free of wild polio. Throughout the 20th century, poliomyelitis, the infectious disease caused by the poliovirus, had caused hundreds of thousands of young children worldwide to be paralysed. The invention of a vaccine in 1955 led to its eradication in industrialised countries by the 1970s and contributed to efforts to reduce its prevalence in countries of the Global South to close to zero (with cases observed only in Afghanistan and Pakistan as of today). Salk’s polio vaccine, Bohlin’s three-point seatbelt as well as Banting’s invention of insulin to treat diabetes have one thing in common: their inventors forfeited their “right” to a patent and made the inventions widely available, allowing them to save lives.
Fast forward a few decades, our world – a year into the deadliest global health pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu – is looking more dire. As the World Health Organisation’s head, Dr Tedros put it a few days ago: “the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries!”. Tedros remarks were prompted by disturbing statistics, showing that, to date, only 25 Africans in Africa (all of them in Guinea, including the West African nations’ president) – of 86.14 million people worldwide in total – had received a COVID-19 vaccine dose. Moreover, the majority of people living in the world’s poorest countries is projected to not be able to access any vaccine for months and years to come.
Recent developments further demonstrate that a practice of vaccine apartheid has unfolded, with rich nations attempting to hoard vaccines and signaling their willingness to disrupt global supply chains for their own benefit. At the same time, US and European pharmaceutical companies are set on maximizing their own profits, having cut deals with the most lucrative bidders in the Global North, while charging countries of poorer regions higher prices. These actions follow formal commitments, made only a few months ago, to honor the global COVAX alliance, which envisaged to ensure equitable access to safe vaccines. Such behavior of Western companies and countries has, once more, demonstrated the discrepancy between rhetoric and actual practice.
Even at the World Economic Forum (WEF), which (virtually) took place last week, concerns around vaccine nationalism made the agenda, amidst fears amongst the world’s capitalist elite that a global scramble to get access to vaccines will adversely impact the global economy, estimated to cost high-income countries USD 119 billion per year. South African President and incumbent Chairperson of the African Union, Cyril Ramaphosa, made use of the WEF platform to call out rich nations for their determinations to acquire vaccine doses enough to inoculate their populations multiple times.
Still, without wanting to diminish the sinister move of AstraZeneca to charge South Africa double the European Union price, South Africans have been disillusioned by their own Government’s handling of the pandemic and its misappropriation of public funds. At the same time, their elites fly abroad to jump queues in order to get immunized. Such phenomena are not restricted to any country, region or continent. Mayors have been bypassing vaccination plans to access vaccines earlier in Austria, Canadian millionaires posed as indigenous persons to get the dose and reports have shown that within the UK, black residents over the age of 80 are half as likely to be vaccinated compared to white residents, although much more likely to succumb to a COVID-19 infection.
All these discriminations highlight that those who suffer as a result of the current intellectual property legislation, artificially limiting the production of life-saving vaccines, are the most vulnerable and least privileged in the world, a majority of them living within countries of the Global South. Apart from the unnerving reality of the unfair distribution of available (and soon available) vaccines, the immorality and injustice to excuse any supply shortage of desperately needed COVID-19 vaccines with production bottlenecks – as brought forward by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTec as well as AstraZeneca – is beyond comprehension!
While the COVID-19 pandemic itself has laid bare all the shortcomings of contemporary capitalism, characterized by its attachment to fiscal austerity, emphasis on short-term profitability and the privatization of social service delivery systems (see, for instance, Saad-Filho 2020), the capitalist strive for profit in the midst of a global health pandemic and its implication for access to a life-saving drug is illustrative of the inequities our current economic world order is producing. While Pfizer is lauding itself for not having received any Government (alias tax-payer) support, its partner BioNTec received a USD 445 million grant from the German Government. Other pharmaceutical companies have received comparable or higher amounts and rely on discoveries, which emerged from publicly funded research.
In this light, it appears even more sour that the University of Oxford had intended to make available the intellectual property for its COVID-19 vaccine to any manufacturer, but wandered off course and sold its rights to AstraZeneca, allegedly urged to do so by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (see e.g. Birn 2013 for an account of the dangers associated with philanthro-capitalism).
While wanting to stress the laudable and enormous achievements of the scientific community that have led to the development of the various coronavirus vaccines in record-time, there is genuine need to address the question of whether we are truly satisfied with the current profit-oriented innovation model, which has demonstrated that only some people can afford and access a certain medicine, or, whether we will finally stand together to plead for the use of alternative ways to drive health innovation (see, for instance, Mazzucato 2018 on a mission-oriented way of fostering biopharmaceutical innovation and the role of the entrepreneurial state).
For the time being, the course of action is clear – our best chance to fight this pandemic, to avoid the unnecessary loss of additional lives and to prevent the further exacerbation of existing global inequities is to ensure that the COVID-19 vaccine is available to us all, worldwide, free of charge, as a common public good. Please consider signing the petition, calling on governments and pharmaceutical companies to make the COVID-19 vaccine a people’s vaccine!
Julia Ngozi Chukwuma is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Economics. Her PhD research seeks to generate novel insights into how social policy, here in the context of health, has taken form in Nigeria.