Vaccines, patents & waivers
SATIRE: Kia ora! My name’s Robbie and I’m another white man behind a desk.
Today I’m talking about Covid-19. That’s right, there’s no escape. Specifically, I’ll be talking about how billions of life-saving Covid vaccines are being withheld from the poorest countries in the world because the owners of vaccine companies love money so darn much. Yay!
It’s always a good time to be Big Pharma, but ever since Covid-19 swept the world a decade ago at the start of last year, it’s become a really good time to be Big Pharma–so remember, there’s a silver lining to everything!
Governments handed over billions of dollars up front to help some drug companies develop their vaccine, and then, once they did, even more governments showed up with billions more dollars to get their hands on them.
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* Covid-19: More world leaders support the easing of vaccine patents – but hurdles remain
The whole “pandemic” thing was such a boon for Big Pharma that, since the start of the pandemic, nine drug company owners or CEOs have become billionaires. Not whole companies, just nine individual human people, whose combined net wealth could vaccinate all people in low-income countries 1.3 times over.
That's right! Even after roughly 6 billion doses of vaccines have been administered around the world, only around 2 per cent of people in low income countries have received at least one dose. And it’s not because they reckon this whole Covid thing is about to blow over.
It’s because vaccine prices are currently made up by Big Pharma taking the cost of production and then just adding any number they want, which puts them out of the price range of poorer countries.
Vaccine manufacturing is also concentrated among a select few companies mostly based in Europe and the US, making distribution to the Global South an absolute nightmare. And while those factories are pumping out doses at a heroic rate, most of them are, unsurprisingly, heading to the richer, whiter parts of the world.
In fact, back in August the director general of WHO estimated that around 75 per cent of the doses delivered at that point had gone to just 10 countries, which I assume is fine. How many countries can there be? Surely it's 14 at the most.
The best attempt anyone’s had so far at directly addressing global vaccine inequality while preserving vaccine patent holders’ precious, precious IP rights, is an initiative called COVAX, which is co-led by CEPI (funded by computer-whiz Bill Gates), WHO (also supported by Microsoft-founder Bill Gates) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (founded by recent divorcée Bill Gates). COVAX pools donations of money and donations of surplus vaccine doses from wealthier countries and then distributes them around the world–like Robin Hood, if Robin Hood thought it was wrong to steal and was invented by rich people.
And while COVAX has succeeded in distributing hundreds of millions of doses so far, they’re on track to come up far short of their intended goal of delivering two billion doses by the end of the year. So to solve that problem, they cleverly reduced their target.
COVAX is struggling to meet their aim partly because outbreaks of the delta variant have had countries keeping doses for themselves instead of donating them, and partly because COVAX still has to buy Covid vaccines at many times their cost price, which means that a huge chunk of that donated cash is just going straight to rich pharmaceutical executives.
And while they’re falling short of two billion doses, it’s important to remember that the initial goal of two billion doses was only enough to vaccinate 20 per cent of people in low-income countries in the first place, which isn't nearly enough.
If I promised to give 20 per cent of people on a sinking boat a life-jacket and then failed to meet that target, you’d be annoyed that I failed to meet the target, but you might be more annoyed to hear that I was initially planning to just let eighty per cent of you drown.
The only real way out of this pickle is to get more factories pumping out more vaccines, so that more countries can access them at cost price, and then all the surplus money can go towards vaccine infrastructure and pandemic recovery, rather than, y’know, a tenth drug company billionaire. And the best way to get more factories pumping out more vaccines is to pry those patented vaccine recipes out of the drug companies’ cold, alive hands.
Luckily, there’s a system in place to make that happen! The elder council of global capitalism, the World Trade Organisation or WTO, coordinates global IP protection through something called ‘the TRIPS agreement’. All member countries need to do is agree to waive TRIPS obligations for Covid-related patents for a few years, and pretty soon we’d have a bunch more factories pumping out vaccines. The price would plummet, and distribution would become a lot easier.
Manufacturers in Bangladesh, Canada, Denmark, and India have said they’re already good to go as soon as they can get their hands on the secret recipe, but for some reason the drug companies, who are currently making billions and billions off their secret recipe, don’t seem too keen to give that recipe away. I guess we’ll never know why.
So, in October last year, WTO representatives from South Africa and India formally requested a TRIPS waiver for IP related to the “prevention, containment and treatment of Covid-19,” arguing, “If this isn’t a global emergency, what the hell is?” Within months the proposal had gained the support of 120 other WTO countries, including the small but mighty island nation of Aotearoa, New Zealand. Just kidding! New Zealand refused to support the waiver that would save millions of lives because our officials were worried about damaging the profits of Fisher & Paykel Healthcare - a spinoff from the people who do the fridges, and we were also worried about upsetting our favourite bully/best friend, the US of A.
Sure enough, when the US eventually joined the side of “clear moral good” to support a TRIPS waiver, the simps at MFAT followed suit, saying, “I don't know what you're talking about. We always prioritised human life over Fisher & Paykel. And we firmly believe this is the right thing to do as long as America is still on board.”
But, as with any time the US has ever done anything good, there was a catch. They supported a TRIPS waiver for vaccine IP, but not for anything else. This was a much narrower proposal than what South Africa and India initially proposed. They’d wanted an IP waiver for anything that aided in the “prevention, containment and treatment of Covid-19”. Basically, if you could make something that could help save lives, you were allowed to build it. But the US said, ‘No, let’s limit it just to the vaccine.’ But here the proud nation of New Zealand thought this was morally wrong, and I’m kidding again, they backed America 100 per cent.
So now, here we are, one whole year since the waiver was first proposed–a year that’s been longer than most–and negotiations on the actual text of the waiver haven’t even started. Even though almost everyone supports at least some version of it.
So what’s the hold up? Well, the answer might surprise you: it’s that drug companies like money and they don’t want to give up their IP. We only said the answer might surprise you.
Drug companies have been lobbying the s... out of any government who’ll listen, and they’ve succeeded in stalling negotiations for months, allowing over a million people around the world to die preventable deaths. You’d think that would make these people feel like walking into the sea while screaming, ‘I’m sorry,’ at the top of their lungs until the bubbles stopped, but apparently some people can forgive themselves anything. Good for them.
The countries currently holding up negotiations are the UK, Switzerland, and all of the EU – by which I mean Germany. And because the WTO works on a consensus basis, those countries could hold up negotiations indefinitely. It’s the perfect system.
The main argument that these hold-out countries make, on behalf of their respective drug companies, is that patents are rewards for whoever is brave enough to gamble their own money on research and development.
The logic is that if we take away those rewards, then we take away the incentive for those companies to invest in the next vaccine, so they won’t, and next time there’s a terrible disease, like the one we’re dealing with now, a lot of people will die, because we wouldn’t be able to distribute vaccines to people who need them. Imagine how bad it would be if that happened!
And this makes sense, because I imagine if drug companies lost market incentives to develop the next global pandemic vaccine, we’d all just throw up our hands and go “Ah well! I guess we’ll all die then!” No! These companies are companies! They will do literally anything for money! The US government can and will pay them to invent the vaccine, you know, like how they literally paid Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to do that exact thing just last year.
The vaccine apartheid is a moral disgrace. Hundreds of thousands of people are dying unnecessarily, and if that isn’t enough to concern you, well then you should probably take a good hard look at yourself, but also! Leaving countries unvaccinated is also really, really short-sighted. Unvaccinated countries are factories for Covid variants, and it’s only a matter of time until one emerges that’s resistant to the current batch of vaccines, dragging us all back to square one.
No country, no matter how rich, is safe from Covid-19 until everyone is safe from Covid-19.
And if that still doesn't worry you, then I don't know what's wrong with you, but if it helps - here’s a number: the International Chamber of Commerce “has found that the global economy stands to lose as much as US$9.2 trillion if governments fail to ensure developing economy access to Covid-19 vaccines.”
Does that help? If I talk about the economy? Basically, this unequal distribution of vaccines is bad in every conceivable way.
So to the UK, Switzerland, and the rich parts of the EU, please, end this now. Look, I’m sorry to stick my neck out and say this–and I’m prepared to take flak for it–but I think nine Covid billionaires is probably enough.