Production firms’ avarice depriving poor nations of vaccines, potentially turning them hotbed for new variants

With COVID-19 virus' ability to mutate rapidly and evolve new variants, the low inoculation regions could turn in to seedbeds for new variants and eventually threaten the planet’s entire population

Representative Image
Representative Image

Dr Soma Marla

By the end of September this year, Western and many middle income nations succeeded in vaccinating nearly 70 percent of their population, while countries like Haiti, Chad, Syria and others could reach merely two percent level. According to UNICEF, at this slow rate of vaccination, 130 countries, mostly from global South, are not expected to gain widespread access before 2023.

With COVID-19’s ability to mutate rapidly and evolve new variants, the low inoculation regions could turn in to seedbeds for new variants and eventually threaten us all on the planet. Gross inequalities in access to vaccines reflect prevailing disparities in wealth distribution between developed and developing nations.

While there are questions of unequal production and distribution of vaccines among nations, the wealthy nations are adopting an ‘every country-for-itself’ approach. They have acquired doses much in advance and more than their requirement by signing purchase contracts with major vaccine manufacturing pharma MNCs. They have hoarded billions of doses, otherwise needed by poor global South.

Ironically, nearly 100 million hoarded and unused vaccine doses in USA are going to expire by end of 2021. Besides this, the USA, UK, UAE, France, Germany, and Israel have also launched booster programs to administer a third dose to their populations.

This serious inequality in COVID-19 vaccine distribution in developing nations is compounded by the impact of the pandemic, the economic devastation, and finally insufficient heath infrastructure to deal with.

With little available resources to buy vaccines in world markets at high prices dictated by major vaccine manufacturing MNCs, the situation is grim. The issue of booster shots has become controversial. A group of top scientists, including experts at the FDA and WHO, published an article in British scientific journal Lancet in its September 20 issue, pointing out that these booster shots are unnecessary since vaccines are still very effective at preventing severe disease and death.

Furthermore, they say, vaccine supplies could save more lives if they are used for unvaccinated people rather than as boosters for the vaccinated. And the WHO has been urging rich countries to stop handing them out until more of the world is vaccinated.

A major reason for unequal access lies with the monopoly of a few pharmaceutical corporations on vaccine production and distribution worldwide. Vaccines could be in production easily globally in large numbers but for the greed for profit of a handful of multinational pharma corporations, owning patent rights and monopoly control of production technology for huge profits. India, Brazil and a few other countries have limited production capabilities. India has produced an indigenous vaccine, Covaxin, and produces Covishield with a manufacturing licence from, AstraZenca, Oxford, UK.

However, of late, India has been facing serious vaccine scarcities arising from non-availability of essential raw materials and technology support due to import sanctions imposed by USA, Germany and other Western nations.

The major factor limiting sharing patents and technologies of approved vaccines is the persistence of patent rights that give pharmaceutical companies a monopoly on production, supplies and issue production licenses to others at their will. Patents are treated as necessary financial reward for original invention or innovation.

COVID-19 is a serious pandemic that has already claimed the lives of millions of innocent civilians around the world, challenging safety of humanity. In these times, keeping public welfare in view, Western governments should temporarily lift sanctions on patents and transfer production technologies by persuading major pharma manufacturers to back down.

Many big pharma companies for Covid-19 vaccine production received massive government subsidies in some of the cases, with research and development costs completely covered. Private pharma companies also benefited from prior public research generated in public funded government universities and institutes like Oxford University, NIH, USA Vaccine Research Institute, ICMR, Pune.

The vaccine pharma industry has already earned huge profits from sales during the current COVID times. Profits from Covid-19 vaccine production have already helped at least nine people become billionaires. A recent Forbes Rich List data revealed that the nine new billionaires have a combined net wealth of 19.3 billion dollars.

In addition to the new nine, eight existing billionaires have seen their combined wealth increase by 32.2 billion dollars thanks to the vaccine rollout. Topping the list of new vaccine billionaires are the CEO of Moderna Stephane Bancel, and Ugur Sahin from BioNTech.

Interestingly enough, this money was enough to fully vaccinate all people in low-income countries 1.3 times, according to global civic group, the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

Gavi, the People’s Alliance for free vaccines, Peoples Vaccine, All India Progressive Forum (AIPF), All India Peoples Science Network (AIPSN) and other civic groups actively campaigned for removal of imposed sanctions on patents and transfer of vaccine production technology to developing nations with limited production infrastructure. Yielding to public pressure from around the world, the Biden administration came in support of the waiving off of ‘intellectual property rights’ for Covid-19 vaccines. This genuinely raised hopes that effective measures may be taken to avert further spread of the virus in poor countries.

However, this decision ruffled the feathers of major vaccine manufacturing MNCs and their investors, including Bill Melinda Gate’s Foundation.

COVAX is an initiative co-led by Gavi and UN, with an aim to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world. It is assumed that delivery of two billion doses of vaccines would be possible largely by seeking contributions from USA and European.

However, the pharma industry is creating hurdles for them. President Biden had initially supported COVAX, but later deprioritized it saying America needs to be vaccinated first.

Oxford University initially promised its vaccine saying it is in public domain and free to be manufactured by anyone with capacity to produce. However, later it backtracked and entered into a deal with British-Swedish Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, transferring all rights with no restrictions on price hike.

As on September end this year, only 301 million doses were provided by COVAX in 131 developing countries against its target of two billion doses.

The issue of waiving vaccine patents and restrictions on production technology remained limited to much publicized announcements and commitments, instead of providing vaccines to third world countries who need them urgently. Western nations continue to hoard huge stocks.

Vaccine imperialism is an indictment of a system that, having created the conditions that unleash pandemics, puts profits ahead of public health and human life. Now, a very similar tension has developed over the pressing need for mass vaccination on a truly international scale.

If the pandemic is allowed to rage out of control in countries that lack basic public health and social infrastructure that can contain it, an utter catastrophe may soon appear.

Overall, the global distribution has been unequal, unjust, and incompetent. This approach will delay the resolution of the ongoing pandemic and create concerns about humanity’s ability to cooperate to address the even greater challenges ahead.

In the past centuries, the West gained affluence by colonizing global South and plundering its enormous resources. Even today, profit greed of Western nations and their pharma MNCs continues to deprive developing world of free mass vaccination in times of horrific COVID pandemic.

(IPA Service)

Views are personal

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