As COVID-19 vaccine production increases, much of the world faces severe shortages. The governments of the United States, Europe and other rich countries have hoarded vaccines or sold to the highest bidders. A slow rollout in poorer nations will be disastrous for the world’s population and the global economy. It will also diminish the vaccine’s effectiveness as new variants mutate.
As of mid-April, 56% of doses have been administered in “high-income” countries with just 16% of the world’s population. Africa, with 17% of the world’s population, has received just 2% of the world’s vaccine doses. Most countries in Africa have a vaccination rate of 1% or less. The World Health Organization has warned that if the trajectory holds, many countries in Africa will not have widespread vaccination until 2024.
In contrast, out of 905 million total doses of vaccine produced, 209 million have been administered in the United States. Western Europe has similarly administered tens of millions of doses, while many African countries have received only tens of thousands.
COVAX, a global initiative led by a number of NGOs and the World Health Organization, plans to distribute vaccines to 92 countries. However, COVAX is only expecting to vaccinate 20% of the population in these countries by the end of the year.
The World Bank estimates COVID-19 has already pushed 40 million people in sub-Saharan African economies into extreme poverty, meaning less than $1.90 per day. With such a slow vaccination rate, the pandemic is likely to drag on for years and further destroy economies.
Big pharma is protecting massive profits at costs of millions of lives
The hoarding of vaccines is by design and actively supported by U.S. pharmaceutical giants.
India, South Africa and 80 other countries proposed a temporary waiver of the Trade-Related Aspects of International Property agreement on patents. The proposal was blocked in February by the United States, European Union, United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia. It is also opposed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — key beneficiaries that stand to profit immensely from global suffering.
The very intellectual-property law being protected leads to gross inefficiencies and stifled innovation in vaccine development. Close protection of “trade secrets” leads to wasteful duplication as companies find they cannot solve storage problems without access to another company’s technology. Other problems in capitalist production led to the waste or ruin of millions of vaccine doses.
IP laws allegedly “incentivize” free-market research, but the U.S. government still intervened to incentivize pharmaceutical giants to develop the vaccine the tune of $12.4 billion as of December 2020. Meanwhile, Cuba, a socialist country without such rigid IP laws, has entered Phase 3 tests of their own vaccine.
Pharmaceutical companies insist that IP law is vital to “innovation,” distribution, or even “national security,” but they are in fact protecting their supposed right to obscene profits. Companies have taken massive amounts of public money to develop and manufacture vaccines. Now they insist that all of the profit and product should be privately owned by them, sold back to the same public at monopoly prices, and denied to anyone unable to pay.
Vaccine delays will cost trillions of dollars and countless lives
About 10,000 people are dying of COVID-19 every day. The longer the vaccination is delayed, the more chance the virus has to mutate, possibly rendering the original vaccine less effective. The United States will not be able to buy or hoard its way out of these problems.
Currently, there are variants identified in Brazil, India and South Africa that have mutated into deadlier and/or more infectious forms. A variant first identified in the UK, 60% more contagious and 67% more deadly, is causing a spike in Pennsylvania. That state is now reporting almost 5,000 cases per day, up from 2,500 a month ago.
If the vaccine rollout continues on its current trajectory, it will cost the global economy trillions of dollars. A January study by the International Chamber of Commerce concluded that the global economy stands to lose as much as $9.2 trillion if governments hoard access to COVID-19 vaccines, as much as half of which would fall on “advanced” economies. The ICC estimates the total cost to prevent this loss would be just $38 billion.
The calls to waive IP rights and fund global vaccine distribution are coming “from inside the house,” so to speak. Even other capitalist organizations are now worried about the economic impact if pharmaceutical companies have their way.
The solution is simple, if Biden will implement it
Ten Democratic Senators are calling for Biden to temporarily waive IP laws during the state of global emergency.
Biden often claims that his “hands are tied” or that he does not have the authority to institute even modest progressive measures, such as student debt relief. If he claims he is powerless to waive IP laws, it will be a lie. In fact, all the United States needs to do is step back from its opposition to the waiver proposition by India and South Africa. So far, the Biden administration has largely avoided talking about the issue.
Under TRIPS regulations, countries can technically issue a compulsory license to produce vaccines under their own domestic law during cases of extreme emergency. But since the World Trade Organization acts largely as a mechanism for U.S. domination, it often blocks countries’ attempts to produce life-saving medicines. Again, the simple solution is for the Biden administration to stop blocking drug production. The United States could in fact do far more, but the bare minimum is removing the imperial boot from the necks of countries seeking to produce their own life-saving medicines.
U.S. corporations and their loyal servants in government are responsible for stopping low-cost, global production of vaccines for much of the world. It is imperative that the Biden administration stop protecting pharmaceutical profits at the expense of global suffering. We need to end vaccine apartheid, IP protections for big pharma, and resource hoarding now to benefit all working people and save millions of lives.