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A vaccine that serves all of humanity – not private profit 

RICHARD BURGON argues that private control of the vaccines means hundreds of thousands of lives could be lost unnecessarily

IN households across the country, there are huge sighs of relief as family members and friends get the coronavirus vaccine. 

The vaccine is a key weapon in the fight against the virus, to help stop the deaths and get life back to something more normal.

At the time of writing, the NHS has administered 15 million jabs, an impressive feat and one that contrasts with how outsourcing giants botched the test and trace system, contributing to the virus spiralling out of control and leading to Britain having one of the world’s highest death tolls.

But this kind of vaccine rollout isn’t happening everywhere. Some estimates show that in the world’s poorest countries nine out of 10 people won’t have been vaccinated this year. 

In fact, of the 175 million vaccines administered at the time of writing, only about eight million of them have gone to South America’s 430 million population and just two million to Africa’s 1.3 billion population.

And vaccine distribution forecasts predict that this won’t be a short-term problem. There are estimates that it will take until 2024 for the world’s poorest countries to vaccinate enough people to achieve immunity. 

Coronavirus is a global crisis unconstrained by borders, hitting high- and low-income countries alike. 

So the solution must be a global one — the vaccine rollout must not be limited to wealthy countries. 

We need to step up the fight to ensure that the vaccine is quickly made available to all and based on need, not their ability to pay. 

The People’s Vaccine Alliance is pushing for such an approach to the vaccine. It is a new coalition of global and national organisations and activists backed by past and present world leaders, health experts, community groups, faith leaders and economists. It deserves all our support. 

But ensuring that everyone gets a vaccine as soon as possible will only happen with a transformation of how vaccines are produced and distributed. 

A rapid global vaccination programme will only come about if private pharmaceutical giants don’t have monopoly control of production through the patent system.  

The People’s Vaccine Alliance has warned that the supply of safe and effective vaccines for all is being “artificially rationed” because of the exclusive rights and monopolies held by pharmaceutical corporations. 

That is, private control of the vaccine is limiting access to it. 

Of course some will claim that it is right that the pharmaceutical giants get to control and profit from the vaccines, as they funded their development.  

Conservative politicians have been stating that the vaccines are a great example of the free market. 

In Parliament recently, Jacob Rees-Mogg even told me that “we should recognise the enormous contribution that free markets have made” in producing the vaccine. 

Yet according to the kENUP Foundation, a non-profit organisation that supports research-based innovation in healthcare, more than $100bn of public money globally has gone towards coronavirus vaccine development. 

kENUP chairman Holm Keller said: “Public investments have been instrumental in supporting innovation in the fight against the coronavirus.”

So we have governments effectively paying twice — once for the research and then to buy doses exclusively produced by companies who hold patents over the final product. 

For example, according to consumer rights group Public Citizen, the US is reportedly paying $1.5bn for 100 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, despite the vaccine’s development having been entirely funded by the US government.  

As Winnie Byanyima, a UN under-secretary-general, has said: “The current system enables pharmaceutical corporations to use government funding for research but maintain monopoly on medicines keeping their technology secret to boost profits.” 

Public health must come before private wealth. Given the huge public investment that has gone into developing vaccines in such a short time, the technology and patents should be used to save as many lives worldwide as possible by making the vaccine a global public good. 

As Lois Chingandu, director of Frontline AIDS, said of the vaccines: “Public investments mean these are public goods, which should be used to benefit all humanity, not private property there to benefit shareholders. 

“Leaders must act now to override this broken system of patents, monopolies, and secrecy to deliver a People’s Vaccine for all.”

South Africa and India recently made a proposal at the World Trade Organisation Council for the waiving of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines and tests until widespread vaccination is in place globally, and the majority of the world’s population has developed immunity. 

World Health Organisation director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom has said that sharing of technology and waiving of intellectual property will make vaccinating the world and controlling this disease possible. 

Without this, he has warned, “the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure — and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.”

While it is welcome that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is being delivered at cost to many, there are obvious limitations on supply. 

It is likely to be able to reach 18 per cent of the world’s population this year at most.

It’s clear that a free market, for-profit model simply won’t deliver enough vaccines quickly enough and many will lose their lives unnecessarily. 

What’s the alternative? Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager has rightly said that we urgently need “open-source vaccines, mass-produced by as many vaccine players as possible, including crucially those in developing countries.”

Everything must be done to get as many vaccines as quickly as possible. It’s simply not possible for one single company to produce as many vaccines as the world needs. 

Keeping production under private control will mean huge supply issues and many lives unnecessarily lost. 

Setting the patents aside means we can ramp up production to produce enough doses to vaccinate everyone. With open-source vaccines we could mobilise large-scale and decentralised manufacturing — in the global North and global South — to get to work producing doses to be distributed at cost.

The People’s Vaccine Alliance says many other vaccine producers in developing and rich countries may already have — or could quickly increase — capacity to manufacture proven safe and effective vaccines if they had intellectual property licenses. 

Unicef data suggests less than half of Covid-19 vaccine production capacity is currently being used for the approved vaccines.

We can’t allow a repeat of the moral failure which led to millions of unnecessary lives lost from Aids-related illnesses in sub-Saharan Africa at the turn of the century. 

Then drugs that could have saved lives — and were doing so in other parts of the world — were denied to people in Africa to protect the super-profits of pharmaceutical companies. 

Huge pharmaceutical firms held the patents for HIV/Aids drugs and opposed the sale of generic copies, with deadly consequences. 

And while justice and humanitarianism should be enough of a reason to break the patents and ensure the vaccine is distributed to low-income countries, it’s also in the interest of high-income countries to make sure vaccine doses are distributed as widely as possible. 

Because until the entire world is vaccinated, no single country can be truly safe from coronavirus.

Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine in the 1950s, refused to patent it. When asked who owned the vaccine, he said: “The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” 

In part thanks to Salk’s approach to this question, polio is today virtually eliminated.

We must now follow in his footsteps. Governments across the world must break the stronghold that private pharmaceutical companies have over vaccine production. Saving lives, not private profit, must be the priority.

Richard Burgon is Labour MP for Leeds East.

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