By Takudzwa Hillary Chiwanza – Feb 5, 2021
Vaccines are a common good, and as such a balance must always be struck between the intellectual property rights
As the world’s industrially advanced countries have developed vaccines for the Covid-19 vaccine, the inequalities caused by capitalism have been laid bare. Access to the vaccine remains a remote possibility for those in low-income countries, while the rich countries are in an insane race to hoard the vaccine – getting quantities more than they require. The pandemic has brought to the fore the absurd and repressive inequalities rampant across the world, which manifest themselves ruthlessly in matters of public health.
While some Western countries have already bought billions of vaccine doses collectively, low-income countries, particularly in Africa, are seriously lagging in the acquisition of the vaccine. A few African countries such as Seychelles, Algeria, South Africa, and Guinea have procured the vaccine from different sources, but this pales in comparison to what the advanced countries have. While South Africa has obtained the vaccine from AstraZeneca, the majority of vaccines supplied in Africa are from China and Russia. And the West continually refuses to collaborate with Chinese and Russian manufacturers, ceaselessly discrediting the vaccines on the basis that “lack of data raises serious questions about their efficacy.” The duality of the haves and have-nots is, in all honesty, an amoral affront on the dignity and solidarity of humankind.
A ‘Catastrophic Moral Failure’ and Vaccine Nationalism
The World Health Organization (WHO) chief strongly warned against the unequal distribution and access to the Covid-19 vaccine. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the world faces a “catastrophic moral failure” in this regard, saying that it is unfair for young and healthy people in developed countries to get the vaccine while vulnerable populations in poorer countries go unvaccinated.
The WHO chief was straightforward – “I need to be blunt: 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. Ultimately, these actions will only prolong the pandemic, the restrictions needed to contain it, and human and economic suffering.”
“My challenge to all member states is to ensure that by the time World Health Day arrives on 7 April, Covid-19 vaccines are being administered in every country, as a symbol of hope for overcoming both the pandemic and the inequalities that lie at the root of so many global health challenges.”
This is what Dr. Tedros termed “vaccine nationalism.” Or a “me-first” approach, which is detrimental to the collective interests of humankind. The determinant of the true efficacy of the vaccine, apart from the medicinal facts, is the political will and commitment to equally distribute the vaccine across the whole world – whether one is rich or poor. The West is succumbing to vaccine nationalism, and even turning a blind eye to the vaccines developed by Russia and China (the vaccines from the latter are the ones mostly being distributed to middle- and lower-income countries).
As it stands, more than 70 million doses of the vaccine have been administered, but less than 20,000 of those have been conducted in Africa. Before the vaccine trials had even ended, some of the global north countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada – had already pre-ordered hundreds of millions of doses. If global access to the vaccine remains as elusive as it is, the cost is enormous, incurring an astounding $9.2 trillion. What rich countries fail to realize is that as long as African countries bear the brunt of under-vaccination, the problems for them will persist. The vaccine should be a conveyance of hope to all, not to some.
Vaccine nationalism should be tackled with the urgency it deserves. Take for instance Canada, which pre-ordered many vaccines to the extent that it will be able to vaccinate its inhabitants five times over. For the UK and the US, it is four vaccines per person, while for Australia and the generality of the EU it is two vaccines per person. When contrasted with the situation in developing countries, it looks dystopic. As of 18 January, 39 million vaccines had been administered in the world’s top 50 rich countries, and for low-income countries, there were only 25 individual doses. Rich countries, which make up 16% of the world’s population, have acquired 60% of the world’s vaccine supply. And this is exactly why the WHO chief sternly warned of a “catastrophic moral failure.”
The COVAX program is a multilateral mechanism designed to get funds for the manufacture and distribution of the vaccine to poorer countries. And it will not even match the power of the rich countries and the giant pharmaceutical companies developing the vaccines. The program aims to “accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.” According to the WHO chief, “it is struggling to purchase enough doses to cover just 20 percent of the population of lower-income countries by the end of 2021.”
Capitalist Policies Always Kill Public Health
Market-driven motives in matters of public health, especially in light of a global pandemic, imply that only a handful of actors determine the opportunities of accessing the vaccines. These actors comprise the giant pharmaceutical companies and the political elite which regulates the health sectors.
One of the major barriers to accessing the vaccine for those in developing countries is the issue of intellectual property rights (IPR). Pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca argue that they have invested a lot in the vaccines, and therefore must reap the financial rewards of their swift, groundbreaking innovation in times of public distress. The giant pharmaceuticals are jealously guarding their patents. Aided by the governments of countries such as Switzerland, the UK, the EU, and the US, “which are all home to the major pharmaceutical companies.” They will not share information and allow the manufacture of the vaccines by anyone – creating a dangerous precedent that concretizes the structural dynamics of scientific and academic inequality.
South Africa and India, supported by other developing and emerging economies, approached the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October 2020 seeking a waiver on the vaccine patents. This “revolutionary proposal” has been rejected by the wealthier countries who are interested in protecting the profits of shareholders at the expense of human life. The two countries want other countries to be given permission to develop and manufacture the vaccines in a move that will improve global equitable access to the vaccine. The wealthy countries are enjoying early access to the vaccine, hence the adamant reluctance to approve the manufacturing of the vaccine in capable countries. Public health is a matter for everyone on the planet.
There should be a balance between the intellectual property rights and the interests of the public, particularly in contemporary times blighted by Covid-19. Big pharma and rich countries prefer a situation in which bilateral agreements between countries and pharmaceutical companies prevail. But this is ineffective as the rich countries, because of their accumulated capital, will order more than they require. Vaccines are a common good, and as such a balance must always be struck between the intellectual property rights of the innovators and the interests of the public – because such innovation is ultimately intended for the good of the public.
But even if the waiver proposal is accepted, it could mean little for African countries. Mainly due to the lack of capacity which is a regrettable but unavoidable feature of the African scientific and academic landscape. The inequality of knowledge systems that exists between the West and Africa means that the production, distribution, storage, and usage of billions of doses of vaccines that require ‘appropriate human, academic and technological capacity’ will be an uphill task for most low- and middle-income economies. The academic community in Africa still has more to do.
The Need For Academic and Scientific Global Solidarity
This epistemological divide is a result of decades of structural national underfunding and political marginalization, with roots in colonialism and aggravated by neoliberal African governments. There is now a need for more altruistic epistemological collaborations in the fields of science and medicine between Western and African institutions. With a desire to achieve a more egalitarian society that upholds the values of humanity more than capital and profits. There should be no monopoly of knowledge when the world is faced with a pandemic that has disrupted almost everything and which has caused tragic loss of lives.
Most universities and other research institutions are woefully under capacitated, lagging behind the global north and east. It is imperative that Africans summon the will to come up with home-grown solutions instead of perpetually waiting for the solutions from other developed countries – something we would aptly call the “waiting syndrome.” We should always remember that before private organizations are given the task to come up with the medicines, it is the prerogative of the State to cater to its inhabitants, everywhere across the world. The State is the only protector of human life, and this should propel governments across the world to fight earnestly for the global equitable distribution of the vaccine.
The development of the vaccine has amplified global inequalities but should serve as a lesson to all that health remains a fundamental human right, and that mortality in times of a pandemic is not selective – and this should act as a rallying call for more unity. Public health in most countries, whether in the global north or south, must be wholly restructured to cater to everyone. Global cooperation and solidarity are in short supply, and this should be corrected as a matter of urgency.
Africans should also rely on lessons learned from the handling of the Ebola virus. It fostered public health collaboration among African countries, and this should prevail again in dealing with the pandemic.
Fight the Pandemic For Everyone
Capitalism is acting as a huge barricade of equal access to the vaccine and this “catastrophic moral failure” will not end the pandemic. Hope should be for all people, not for some people, and public health should not be privatized to the extent that even frontline health workers in the global south are not vaccinated. Every vaccine – whether it is from the UK, China, or Russia – should be treated equally, in scientific and moral terms, so that everyone on the face of the Earth can reap the rewards of stellar human innovation in times of serious distress. Intellectual property rights should not be sanctified at the expense of the safety of everyone else. Morality in this regard must reign supreme.
Featured image: Testing for COVID-19 in Ogun State, Nigeria; but when will vaccines be available?