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Editorial: Vaccine wars – the fight against Covid is a fight against Big Pharma

OVER a billion vaccinations against Covid-19 have been administered worldwide — surely a tribute to the power of scientific progress.

Yet the World Health Organisation’s announcement that just 0.3 per cent of these have been given in low-income countries blights that achievement.

The concentration of vaccine access in the world’s richest countries is an indictment of a global economic system structured to privilege the profits of the rich over the lives of the poor.

Nothing could make that clearer than the list of countries that have supported the call for an intellectual property waiver for Covid treatments, a measure that would allow generic vaccine manufacture, which was proposed to the World Trade Organisation by India and South Africa last autumn.

With a tiny number of exceptions, the developing world is united behind demands that patents be waived. China, most of Asia and Latin America, and all of Africa back this approach.

Which countries are blocking the measure? A familiar roll call — the United States, the European Union, Britain, Canada, Australia and Japan. In short, the political West.

Big Pharma has mobilised against the threat of generic medicines.

Sharing vaccine patents would risk revealing technological secrets to the US’s rivals, its lobbyists stress. This, the Financial Times reports, “could allow China and Russia to exploit platforms such as mRNA, which could be used for other vaccines or even therapeutics for conditions such as cancer and heart problems in the future.”

Even cancer and heart treatments? Just as well Washington won’t let the Russians or Chinese get their hands on those.

Big Pharma’s stranglehold on medicines is not a new problem. But it is a worsening one. 

Patent rights are increasingly written into international “trade” treaties such as last year’s free trade deal between India and the US. These even affect medicine access in rich countries: Ceta, the Canada-EU trade deal, was predicted to raise the cost of drugs in Canada by between 6.2 and 12.9 per cent.

Neoliberal domestic policy accelerates the process: India has steadily narrowed the definition of “essential” medicines, which it reserves the right to produce in violation of foreign patents, over recent decades.

This intellectual property racket is built on a lie: that pharmaceutical companies need large profit margins in order to fund future research and development.

Yet the industry spends far more on marketing than it does on research. Nor does the argument acknowledge the enormous role played by publicly funded scientific research in developing medicines. 

Often private-sector power is leveraged behind the scenes to mask the role played by public institutions, as when Bill Gates intervened last year to block plans for the vaccine being developed by Oxford University to be open-licence, using his clout as a major donor to the university’s research to ensure rights to produce it were assigned to AstraZeneca. No surprise that Gates is now among the most prominent opponents of the patent waiver.

Control of vaccine manufacture by a handful of profiteering companies is intolerable in light of the unfolding tragedies in India, Brazil and other countries as deaths soar and unscrupulous black market traders exploit people’s desperation to flog bogus treatments.

Yet the very scale of the crisis makes it an opportunity for change. The case for breaking the power of Big Pharma is being made daily, as is the case for tearing up the cloying web of corporate treaties undermining democracy and national sovereignty the world over. 

Britain and the US make much of the need to counter the “threat” of China — a power, they assert, which won’t play by the rules. Yet the rules-based system they police is exploitative and unjust. Socialists can show their international solidarity with the vast majority of humanity by raising pressure on our government to drop its selfish, cynical and murderous policy on global vaccine manufacture.

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