The vaccine scramble

By Mike Phipps

After the relief at the discovery of a vaccine that is 90% effective at preventing COVID-19, the pressing question is: who is going to get it?

For billions of people around the world, there will not be a vaccine any time soon. The company which announced that it has a vaccine says it has the capacity to produce the two required doses for 675 million people by the end of 2021.  But rather than distribute them globally according to need, rich countries have already bought up most of the doses.

 The obvious solution is to bring together the world’s resources to produce more of the vaccine as fast as possible. The problem is that Pfizer has exclusive rights to make this vaccine and has no plan to share it. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has a plan that allows companies and governments to work together to scale up production – a plan that Pfizer has called “nonsense”.   Meanwhile, on Monday, the value of its shares went up by 11%.

 According to Global Justice Now, the company emphasises that it hasn’t taken any government money towards developing the vaccine. Yet their partners on it, BioNTech, have received nearly half a billion euros from public funds. And Pfizer has received billions in tax breaks and advanced purchase orders, a form of government support. It’s estimated that Pfizer and BioNTech could make $13bn from the coronavirus vaccine.

Leaving the process to Pfizer and BioNTech means only 50 million doses would be produced this year and 1.3bn for 2021, nowhere near enough to meet global demand. Campaigners say the World Trade Organisation needs to act to suspend patents on all COVID-19 medicines, as South Africa and India have proposed.

Pharmaceutical giants derided a scheme, launched by the WHO in May, to share information, including trial data and patent rights, and to develop and distribute coronavirus treatments, vaccines and diagnostics.

Meanwhile, Oxford University’s vaccine research has been supported with £84 million of public money.  Should it reach the stage of production, AstraZeneca will manufacture and distribute the vaccine in a deal which sets out who controls the vaccine and at what price it will be sold. The concern is not only that publicly funded private companies will profit hugely from the pandemic, but also that they will keep secret the technology behind any vaccine, preventing any mass scale-up of production.

Experts believe that Oxford University’s vaccine will be more practical in the long run. The Pfizer version needs to be kept at -70C until the day it is used, which presents some challenges for using it in GP surgeries or care homes, let alone in poorer countries. Oxford University’s variant can be stored at ordinary fridge temperatures.

Global Justice Now argues that any publicly funded vaccine “should not become a privatised commodity used for corporate profiteering. Instead it should be a global public good and shared with the world, free of monopolies. Working in solidarity rather than competition will give us our best chance of defeating this global pandemic.”

Following this week’s announcement of a successful vaccine by Pfizer, over 80% of doses were bought by governments which have only 14% of the world’s population. Speaking on Novara Media’s Tysky Sour, Nick Dearden, Director of Global Justice Now, said, “Governments like the British government  have claimed from the start that they are doing everything they can to ensure fair distribution of these vaccines around the world, but when it actually comes down to it, they are buying up as many vaccines as they can outside of the very mechanisms they have already set up to secure that international distribution.”

It’s unsurprising of course that a government like Johnson’s, which is responsible for the loss of tens of thousands of lives due to its reliance on an incompetent private sector to deliver a testing and tracing system, would be equally ideologically wedded to the market when it comes to vaccine delivery.

The international scheme COVAX was established to deal with what Dearden calls the “completely dysfunctional” working of the pharmaceutical sector. It was in recognition of the fact that developing a vaccine for coronavirus could not mirror the global response to diseases like AIDS in the 1990s, where poorer countries suffered massive fatalities because they could not afford crucial medicines. The original idea was for countries to come together and produce vaccines and treatments without patents, but the UK and US diluted it because of the implications for intellectual property rights.

Jamie Love, the director of the NGO Knowledge Ecology International, described the stance as “appalling… In a global crisis like this, that has such a massive impact on everyone, you would expect the WHO governing body to have the backbone to say no monopolies in this pandemic. It’s one thing for a country to use its economic clout to buy preferential access to drugs or vaccines. It’s another to prevent others from manufacturing and expanding global supply.”

As a result of pressure from richer countries, the current COVAX system is centred on the more limited issue of distribution networks. This is despite the finding of a recent UK opinion poll showing that 96% of respondents supported the idea that national governments should work together to ensure that treatments and vaccines can be manufactured in as many countries as possible and distributed globally to everyone who needs them.

Nick Dearden is right to call the pharmaceutical sector “dysfunctional”. Its pursuit of profit means that potential vaccines for many life-threatening viruses are not researched at all, because they are mainly fatal in poorer countries, which cannot pay the prices Pfizer and others choose to charge. Michael Roberts observed: “Before the pandemic, 16 out of the top 20 American pharmaceutical companies did no research in vaccines to deal with diseases previously concentrated in the poor parts of world where there was no profit to be made. They preferred to concentrate on anti-depressants, opioids, diabetes and cancer.”

With private companies getting public cash for their research but still charging exorbitant prices for their products, the current situation underlines the need for a publicly owned generic drugs manufacturing operation, both here and internationally. Labour put forward some positive proposals on this last year – it’s now time to revisit and concretise them in the light of the coronavirus crisis.

Image: New York City – Pfizer World Headquarters. Author: Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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