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Covid-19 vaccine—who will be to blame if the poor are again left to die?

This article is over 3 years, 2 months old
The rollout of Covid-19 vaccination programmes helps governments claim they are in control of the coronavirus pandemic. But the vaccine isn’t for everyone—the poorest are being left behind. And ultimately the scheming of powerful states and pharmaceutical firms put everyone at risk
Issue 2739

Anishca Morris never got to hold her newborn daughter. Admitted to hospital while pregnant, she was with sick with Covid-19. Her baby Azariah was delivered by C-section and quickly taken away to shield her from her mother’s infection.

Anishca died shortly afterwards, ­leaving behind two children.

Working in the Woolworths store in Fish Hoek in the Western Cape, South Africa, she was daily exposed to the virus but given little in the way of protection. Her life was deemed doubly expendable because she was both poor and black.

Anishca had the misfortune to live in a country where Covid-19 is on the rampage and the health service has all but collapsed.

And because there is no vaccination programme on the horizon, unlike in the West, there’s little hope of a brighter future for South Africa’s poor. Instead there is only fear of many more tragedies.

How the richest country in Africa can have no vaccination programme is a question that millions of people are asking. The answer is that it has no programme because it owns no vaccines—and it will be weeks, if not months, before any arrive.

President Cyril Ramaphosa insists that South Africa has bought 20 million doses which should land in the country sometime this year. But he admits he has no timeline for a planned programme to vaccinate as many as 40 million adults.

And, when the vials finally arrive, they will cost South Africa more than twice as much as those sold the European countries.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organisation, is angry.

He says South Africa, like many countries in the Global South, has no access to vaccinations because they have all been hoovered up by Western countries.

“More than 39 million doses of vaccine have now been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries,” he said last week. “Just 25 doses have been given in one lowest-income country. Not 25 million, not 25,000, just 25.”

The low-income country Ghebreyesus was referring to is Guinea, the only one in its ­category to have delivered any shots so far. Earlier this month two dozen “senior officials” and the ­president were inoculated.


“It’s not right that younger healthier adults in rich countries are vaccinated before health workers and older people in poorer countries,” Ghebreyesus went on. “The world is on the edge of catastrophic moral failure.”

Ghebreyesus is right to say it is a scandal that so many poorer countries will wait for years for vaccines. But his argument suggests that ordinary people in the rich West are somehow responsible. And it accepts as fact the pharmaceutical industry’s claim that there can only be a limited supply of vaccine.

That is not the case.

Many countries in the Global South have the ability to mass produce vaccines, including those used against Covid-19.

The New York Times newspaper reported last week that a factory in South Africa is expected to start churning out “millions of doses of the Covid‑19 vaccine each day”. But it said those vials “will probably be shipped to a distribution centre in Europe and then rushed to Western countries that have pre-ordered them”.

Laws protecting the “intellectual property rights” of big drug companies stops many more firms in the Global South from producing cheap drugs for their regions.

These “rights” are used to ban anyone from copying the ingredients of the original vaccine and making their own cheap versions of it.

But such copies are likely the only way billions of people will ever get ­protection from Covid-19.

Surely stopping the spread of cheap drugs that could save millions of lives is also a “catastrophic moral failure”? The trouble for Ghebreyesus is that to admit this would fracture the World Health Organisation, which depends on the leaders of the major nations for its existence.

The way those leaders back “their” pharmaceutical companies over people’s lives can be seen in an unusual court case now underway.

The Indian and South African governments are demanding that intellectual property laws on goods related to the virus be suspended. That way they can easily produce drugs and equipment to help save lives.


Unfortunately, the court that will hear the case is part of the much-hated World Trade Organisation (WTO). This body routinely finds for global corporations and against the poor because the logic of profit is hardwired into its existence.

Nevertheless, the pharmaceutical industry is lobbying hard for the right decision from the WTO. The future of medicine is at stake, they say, because only the incentive of huge profits can make years of research into possible treatments worthwhile.

And the firms have hinted at ­stereotypes of “Third World backwardness” to explain why high quality vaccines are mostly made in Europe and America.

The pharma company Regeneron said, “Manufacturing antibody medicines is incredibly complex and ­transferring the technology takes many months, as well as significant resources and skill.” It is seemingly unaware that both India and South Africa already produce similar drugs.

In the courtroom Big Pharma will have the backing of powerful friends, all desperate to keep intellectual property rights laws intact. They include the governments of Britain, the US, Canada and Norway, and the European Union.

But the corporate case is based on a lie. The firms never funded the research into the coronavirus vaccine. Instead they received one of the biggest ­handouts of state cash to private firms in the history of capitalism.

In Britain, the government-initiated Vaccine Taskforce ploughed some £33.6 billion of public money into a mixture of public and private sector research groups. The US government under Donald Trump handed AstraZeneca £900 million, Pfizer £1.4 billion and Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline £1.5 ­billion. Governments across Europe also ploughed billions of Euros into their native biotech firms.

The “risk” of development was never borne by the big pharmaceutical companies. It was borne by the public.

One of the many outrages of the sordid scandal to stop cheap drugs is that it puts everybody, all over the world, at increased risk.

The longer the virus is allowed to ­circulate anywhere in the world, the more often it will mutate. Some strains will have the ability to infect more easily, and others to do more damage. And it’s possible some will emerge that are resistant to the vaccines we have today.

If this is our future, we should at least know who was really to blame.

Covax project – Attempt to stop ‘vaccine nationalism’ has failed

The Covax project was supposed to be a global effort to ensure an equal distribution of coronavirus vaccines.

Administered in part by the World Health Organisation, it said it would stop “vaccine nationalism” by buying up huge quantities for distribution to poorer countries.

Covax claims to have secured a massive two billion doses—with the goal of covering 20 percent of participant countries’ populations by 2021.

But so far not a single vial has been delivered.

Lack of resources is the key to Covax’s problem. Canada is giving the programme just £180 million, while France and Germany could only find £88 million each.

The European Union proudly proclaimed its commitment by announcing it will give Covax £443 million. It later transpired that most of this was in the form of a European Development Bank loan.

Panic buying robs world of its vital supplies

Few episodes reveal the disastrous failure of the free market better than the scramble for vaccines.

The European Union (EU) began buying up the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in the summer. But it didn’t place any firm orders until November, when the drug successfully completed its trials.

By that time Pfizer had already sold most of its production in a frenzy of bidding—so the EU got very little.

Under pressure Pfizer subsequently offered the EU 500 million more doses, but the EU turned down the firm’s offer because the French government objected.

It said that buying from Pfizer would undermine the vaccine being developed by French firm Sanofi. Yet the Sanofi vaccine is a long way from clearing its trials and is unlikely to be available until late this year.

So the EU then resorted to a desperate scramble to buy any vaccine from anywhere, at any cost.

Now Luxembourg’s foreign minister reports the EU has “secured almost two billion doses with six different manufacturers”.

Two billion is more than double the number it needs to inoculate its 450 million people with two doses. It means an equal number elsewhere in the world will go without.

India’s vaccine fear isn’t only due to spread of ‘fake news’

Big pharma’s jealous hold of the vaccines it developed is leading India to use a drug that has not been fully tested as part of its programme.

The vaccine, known as Covaxin, is produced by Indian company Bharat Biotech. As it has not completed phase 3 trials there is no final data on its efficacy, or any potential side effects.

Fears that the vaccine might be dangerous are making the task of inoculating India’s 1.3 billion people far more difficult.

Already there are reports that uptake nationally is just 64 percent, and that in some states it is as low as 22 percent.

Health workers, including doctors, are supposed to be among the first vaccinated but many are refusing until there is reliable data.

In New Delhi’s largest hospital, the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, just eight healthcare workers out of an expected 100 turned up last Monday for their jab.

Dr Namrata Agarwal, a paediatrician in Kashipur, in the north east of India, is among those not eager to take the vaccine. “I’m very hesitant,” she said.

“All the protocols have been rushed and hurried through. I am not so concerned about the efficacy of a vaccine—that can vary—but what concerns me is its safety and the chance that it might cause harm.”

Bharat Biotech was last week forced to release a factsheet on its vaccine.

It said those with underlying health conditions should not be injected with Covaxin. That came as a shock to those administering the jab, who had not previously been notified of any such restriction.

Misinformation and mistrust is helping to fuel viral videos that tell people in India that vaccines in general are not safe.

And many doctors are now demanding that prime minister Narendra Modi and his hard right ministers are filmed being injected with Covaxin.

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