Politics, Profits Undermine Public Interest in Covid-19 Vaccine Race

  • Opinion by Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Anis Chowdhury (sydney and kuala lumpur)
  • Inter Press Service

Expecting to score politically from being ‘first' to have a vaccine, US President Trump's Operation Warp Speed promises to get 300 million doses to Americans by January, after the November polls, following several failed attempts to monopolize vaccines being developed by European companies.

More than 115 vaccine development efforts are ongoing around the world. Eight human trials are underway, including five in China, with the most promising one government financed. Meanwhile, affordable access is the primary concern for most of the world.

Fighting epidemics together

Sixty-five years ago, Jonas Salk insisted that the polio vaccine he had developed remain patent free. Asked who owned the patent, he replied, "The people I would say. There is no patent. You might as well ask, could you patent the sun?"

Making vaccines and life-saving drugs available freely or affordably has been crucial for containing infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV-AIDS, polio and smallpox. Smallpox had a 30% mortality rate among those infected, and was responsible for 10% of the world's blind.

In 1958, the Soviet Union urged the World Health Organization (WHO) to eradicate smallpox, offering funding for a plan. Surprising many, the US, already WHO's major funder, agreed, resulting in the rivals' most successful collaboration during the Cold War.

Smallpox was eradicated in 1977, following a WHO campaign seeking total eradication within a decade, launched in 1967, when there were over 2.5 million cases worldwide. However, the paltry budget approved by the WHA would not even have paid for the vaccines required.

The programme was launched in developing countries with vaccines donated by other countries including both Cold War rivals. Developing countries quickly developed vaccine producing and vaccination capabilities with generous technical assistance from abroad.

A people's vaccine?

More than 140 world leaders and experts signed an open letter before the World Health Assembly (WHA) began on 18 May, calling on governments to commit to a ‘people's vaccine' against COVID-19, with all vaccines, treatments and tests patent-free, mass produced, fairly distributed and available to all, in every country, free of charge.

Leaders of Italy, France, Germany, Norway, the European Commission and Council urged that the vaccine be "produced by the world, for the whole world" as a "global public good of the 21st century". President Xi promised that a China developed vaccine will be a "global public good", with "accessibility and affordability in developing countries", with President Macron pledging likewise.

The United Nations Secretary-General also emphasized that everybody must have access to the vaccine when available. The WHA unanimously acknowledged that vaccines, treatments and tests are global public goods, but was vague on implications.

Nevertheless, the US disassociated itself from over-riding patents in the interests of public health, objecting that it would send the "wrong message to innovators". Both Johnson & Johnson and French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi have US government contracts to develop potential treatments, but the US Health and Human Services Secretary refuses to guarantee they will be affordable.

Earlier, the US did not join the 24 April world leaders' pledge to increase cooperation against Covid-19, besides ignoring a 4 May pledge by international leaders and organizations to spend US$8 billion to make available a vaccine and treatments.

Contain China, not the pandemic

Unfortunately, three decades after the Cold War ended, the context is very different now, due to politics and profits. Trump's ‘America first' administration and some key allies seeking to check China fear that Beijing's handling of the Covid-19 crisis has boosted its already fast rising standing.

By April, the US and its allies were blaming China for the pandemic due to the "Chinese virus". Trump upped the ante on 27 April by threatening retaliatory measures against China for billions of dollars of damages worldwide, claiming that China could have stopped the epidemic at source, but did not.

Offering no evidence, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also accused ‘China-affiliated' hackers of trying to steal intellectual property (IP) for Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and testing. Meanwhile, some US states, politicians and companies have also filed lawsuits against China for damages.

All this has also undermined the WHO, now depicted as China's puppet. POTUS's tough letter to the Director-General demanded "substantive", but unspecified "improvements" at the WHO within 30 days, threatening to permanently end already suspended US funding and to quit altogether.

‘America first' vs global public interest

With elections less than half a year away, Trump's recent rhetoric and policies appear preoccupied with boosting his re-election prospects, slipping due to his handling of the outbreak.

Unsurprisingly, international concerns over US control of an effective Covid-19 vaccine have grown. German weekly, Die Welt am Sonntag reported in March that POTUS had offered German biotech company, CureVac about US$1 billion for exclusive access to the vaccine it is developing.

Earlier this month, Sanofi hastily backed down after the French Prime Minister insisted that access for all was "non-negotiable" following the CEO's 13 May announcement that the US government had "the right to the largest pre-order because it's invested in taking the risk" despite French government support for Sanofi worth hundreds of millions of euros.

Profits vs public interest

Only a few giant companies can develop and produce a vaccine from start to finish, due to the expense and range of expertise required. Historically, most vaccines have been developed in the North, often reaching the South much later.

During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, some OECD governments contracted with pharmaceutical giants to monopolize the H1N1 swine flu vaccine. After developing a promising Zika vaccine in 2017, the US Army assigned production rights to Sanofi, but the deal fell through following profiteering charges by US watchdog organizations and Senator Bernie Sanders.

Despite enjoying the patent system's extended monopolies, at the expense of public health, limited prospects for lucrative profits have generally discouraged investments to develop affordable medicines and vaccines for developing countries.

What can be done

Some pharmaceutical giants, e.g., Glaxo-Smith-Kline and Sanofi, claim they do not expect to profit from the Covid-19 vaccine. But such recent industry promises not to profiteer from making the vaccine globally available are hard to reconcile with the record that drug research and development has long been driven by the prospect of massive profits.

Such firms have been urged to make the Open Covid pledge to voluntarily relinquish their IP rights (IPRs), at least until the Covid-19 pandemic is over. But Oxfam fears this may not be enough. As Big Pharma has long enjoyed massive government subsidies, national authorities can enforce the pledge.

Governments can also use ‘compulsory licencing', permitted by World Trade Organization rules, to enable companies that do not have the IPRs, to make, manufacture and sell generic versions of patented medicines only for national sale, as the Bush administration did with Tamiflu a decade and a half ago in the face of the Avian flu threat.

© Inter Press Service (2020) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service