Vaccines are a Global Public Good

By Boaventura de Sousa Santos, on April 9, 2021

There is some consensus that the current pandemic will remain with us for a long time. We are going to enter a period of intermittent pandemics whose precise characteristics are yet to be defined. The game between our immune system and the mutations of the virus does not have very clear rules. We will have to live with uncertainty, no matter how dramatic the advances in contemporary biomedical sciences. We do know a few things for sure.

We know that the recurrence of pandemics is related to the dominant model of development and consumption, to the climate changes associated with it, to the pollution of seas and rivers, and to the deforestation of forests. We know that the acute phase of this pandemic (possibility of severe contamination) will only end when 60% to 70% of the world’s population is immunized. We know that this task is hampered by worsening social inequalities within and between countries, combined with the fact that Big Pharma does not want to give up patent rights on vaccines. Vaccines are already considered the new liquid gold, succeeding the liquid gold of the 20th century, oil.

We know that State policies, political cohesion around the pandemic and the behavior of citizens are decisive. The greater or lesser success depends on the combination of epidemiological surveillance, reduction of contagion through confinements, the effectiveness of the hospital rearguard, better public knowledge about the pandemic, and attention to special vulnerabilities. Errors, negligence and even necrophilia intentions on the part of some political leaders have given rise to forms of death by health policies that we call social Darwinism: the elimination of disposable social groups because they are old, because they are poor or because they are discriminated against for ethnic, racial or religious reasons.

Finally, we know that the European (and North American) world has shown in this pandemic the same arrogance with which it has treated the non-European world for the last five centuries. Believing that the best technical-scientific knowledge comes from the Western world, it has been unwilling to learn from the way other countries of the Global South have dealt with epidemics and, specifically, with this virus. Long before the Europeans realized the importance of the mask, the Chinese already considered it mandatory. On the other hand, due to a toxic mixture of prejudices and pressure from lobbies in the service of large Western pharmaceutical companies, the European Union (EU), the United States, and Canada have resorted exclusively to vaccines produced by these companies, with unpredictable consequences for the time being.

In addition to all this, we know that there is a geo-strategic vaccine war very poorly disguised by empty appeals to the well-being and health of the world’s population. According to Nature magazine of last March 30, the world needs eleven billion doses of vaccines (on the basis of two doses per person) to achieve herd immunity on a global scale. By the end of February, orders for some 8.6 billion doses had been confirmed, of which 6 billion were destined for the rich countries of the Global North. This means that impoverished countries, which account for 80% of the world’s population, will have access to less than one-third of the available vaccines. This vaccine injustice is particularly perverse because, given the global communication that characterizes our time, no one will be truly protected until the whole world is protected. Moreover, the longer it takes to achieve herd immunity on a global scale, the greater the likelihood that virus mutations will become more dangerous to health and more resistant to available vaccines.

A recent study, which brought together 77 scientists from several countries around the world, concluded that within a year or less, virus mutations will render the first generation of vaccines ineffective. This will be all the more likely the longer it takes to vaccinate the world’s population. Now, according to estimates by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, at the current rate, only 10% of the population in the poorest countries will be vaccinated by the end of next year. Further delays will result in a further proliferation of fake news, the infodemic, as WHO calls it, which has been particularly destructive in Africa.

There is a consensus today that one of the most effective measures will be the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights on vaccine patents for Covid by large pharmaceutical companies. This suspension would make vaccine production more global, faster and cheaper. And thus, more quickly, global herd immunity would be achieved. In addition to the health justice that would allow this suspension, there are other good reasons to defend it. For one thing, patent rights were created to stimulate competition in normal times. Pandemic times are exceptional times that, instead of competition and rivalry, require convergence and solidarity. On the other hand, pharmaceutical companies have already pocketed billions of euros of public money as funding to encourage faster research and development of vaccines. Moreover, there are precedents for patent suspensions, not only in the case of retroviral for the control of HIV/AIDS, but also in the case of penicillin during World War II. If we were in a conventional war, the production and distribution of weapons would certainly not be under the control of the private companies that produce them. The state would certainly intervene. We are not in a conventional war, but the damage that the pandemic does to the lives and well-being of populations may prove similar (almost three million dead to date).

It is not surprising, therefore, that there is now a vast global coalition of non-governmental organizations, States and UN agencies in favor of the recognition of vaccines (and health in general) as a public good and not a business, and the consequent temporary suspension of patent rights. Far beyond vaccines, this global movement has a bearing on the struggle for access to health for all and for transparency and public control of the public funds involved in the production of drugs and vaccines. In turn, some 100 countries, led by India and South Africa, have already asked the World Trade Organization to suspend patent rights related to vaccines. These countries do not include the countries of the Global North. Thus, the World Health Organization’s initiative to ensure global access to the vaccine (COVAX) is destined to fail

Let us not forget that, according to data from the Corporate Europe Observatory, Big Pharma spends between 15 and 17 million euros a year to lobby EU decisions, and that the pharmaceutical industry as a whole has 175 lobbyists in Brussels working for the same purpose. The scandalous lack of transparency in vaccine contracts is the result of this pressure. If Portugal wanted to give distinction and true cosmopolitan solidarity to the current presidency of the Council of the European Union, it would have a good protagonist issue here. All the more so if another Portuguese, the UN Secretary-General, has just made a call to consider health as a global public good.

Everything points to the fact that, in this area as in others, the EU will continue to renounce any global responsibility. Intent on remaining glued to U.S. global policies, in this case, it may be overtaken by the U.S. itself. The Biden administration is considering suspending the patenting of a vaccine-relevant technology developed in 2016 by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Source: Alainet, translation Resumen Latinoamericano – English