A World Apart

Issue 263

Julia Thomas Apr 23, 2021

Since Dec. 14, 2020, over 127 million people across the United States have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the rollout continues to reach more eligible groups nationwide. The country is on pace to meet President Joe Biden’s doubled goal of 200 million administered doses by April 28, his 100th day in office, with some experts predicting all U.S. residents could get a shot in 2021.

This high level of vaccine access, however, is a reality only in wealthy countries. The vast majority of the world’s people are experiencing vaccine apartheid, due to pharmaceutical monopolies on COVID-19 vaccines that lay bare the value placed on corporate profit over ending the pandemic on a global scale and providing lifesaving, essential care for those who are most vulnerable.

The artificial scarcity of COVID-19 vaccines is created by Big Pharma and its licensing agreements, which heavily restrict the global production and consequent distribution of vaccines to poor countries. Take the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, which is currently being produced by the Serum Institute in India and was originally intended for 92 low-income countries that are home to 4 billion people — half the global population. Amid a surge in its own COVID-19 cases this spring, India has hoarded the vaccines for its domestic population, keeping significantly more than its fair share of 35% of the doses.

In the midst of the stall in shipments, AstraZeneca has exported millions of doses to wealthy countries that are not included in the 92 intended recipients, such as the United Kingdom. These countries, prior to their purchase of AstraZeneca vaccines from India, were among the first to oppose requests to the World Trade Organization for patent waivers to expand vaccine production globally.

“That the UK, which has vaccinated nearly 50% of its adults with at least one dose, should demand vaccines from India, which has only vaccinated 3% of its people so far, is immoral,” writes Achal Prabhala, a coordinator of the AccessIBSA Project, which campaigns for equal vaccine access, in The Guardian. “That the UK has already received several million doses from India, alongside other rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and Canada, is a travesty.”

Vaccine apartheid is exacerbating the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 in low- income countries and prolonging risk of exposure for billions of people, as well as further spread of highly infectious variants. A third of the world’s countries have had no public money to deal with the effects of COVID-19, according to an Oxfam report, and the Americas, the world’s hardest-hit region, have seen an acute rise in gender-based violence and deadly attacks on people defending land, water and human rights. China and Russia are practicing vaccine diplomacy by selling or donating vaccines to dozens of low-income countries in Africa, Asia and South America, while Cuba, known for its commitment to universal healthcare and international medical solidarity, is nearing the end of two stage-three clinical trials for its own COVID-19 vaccines. These are examples of pushback against the crippling monopoly on vaccine production: but in order to truly end the spread of COVID-19 and ensure equitable recovery from the devastation of the pandemic, patent monopolies must be waived, as many medical experts and progressive organizations continue to demand.

One hundred and seventy-five former heads of state and Nobel laureates have signed an open letter demanding President Biden waive intellectual property rules for COVID-19 vaccines. A waiver would end monopoly-hindered supply shortages and expand manufacturing capacities, and prioritize the health of people everywhere. Without it, 9 in 10 people in poor countries could go without a vaccine in 2021; and by not vaccinating people globally, the whole world will continue to suffer due to the ongoing spread of COVID-19.

“If this last year has taught us anything, it is that threats to public health are global, and that strategic government investment, action, global cooperation, and solidarity are vital,” the letter reads. “The market cannot adequately meet these challenges, and neither can narrow nationalism.”

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