As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads out of control in neighboring India, the sad reality is that the worst health crisis humanity has faced in living memory, has still not brought the world’s powerful nations on to a consensual platform to launch an all-out war against the Covid enemy.
On Wednesday, in what is hailed as a monumental moment, the United States agreed to waive the patent protection on covid vaccines. Yet the gloom remains, with Britain and the European Union still clinging on to intellectual property rights of Big Pharma.
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They are likely to resist the US move which the US Trade Representative Katherine Tai backed by saying “extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures”.
The inadequate or half-hearted action by some rich nations – the US included despite its Wednesday announcement — raises the question of whether the so-called world leaders are deriving sadistic pleasure by watching on the television screens what is to the rest of the world heartbreaking visuals.
Isn’t it criminal depravity when they shamelessly put profits and patents before Covid patients who are dying like flies in their thousands in India and other countries?
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The bitter reality
As India’s crematoriums work nonstop, bodies are burnt in car parks and public places, burial grounds run out of space, and the afflicted die without oxygen in hospitals and outside hospitals while waiting to be admitted, it is nauseating to learn that biopharma giants are making billions of dollars in profits by selling Covid vaccines.
Pfizer, the first to hit the vaccine market, reported on Tuesday that it had beaten its revenue forecast by 73 percent.
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The company has earned US$ 3.5 billion in profits in the first quarter and is expecting a revenue of US$ 26 billion by December as the demand rises for the Covid vaccine which it sells 20 percent above the cost.
This is while shares of vaccine companies like Pfizer, its German partner BioNTech and their rivals Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson skyrocket in global stock markets.
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Rarely highlighted in these news items, appearing in corporate media is the story that Big Pharma is making obscene profits by sending its Covid vaccines largely to rich nations, some of which are ordering more than what they need and stockpiling the access.
However, in poor nations, covid patients go through hell without access to medicine, proper medical care, and oxygen ventilators that can help them breathe if not die peacefully.
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The moral turpitude or the sickening disparity in vaccine distribution is evident in World Health Organisation statistics which point out that wealthy nations have received more than 87 percent of covid vaccines distributed worldwide, while low-income nations have received less than one percent.
Most of these poor nations pin their hopes on the WHO-led Covax program which was launched last year to ensure a fair distribution of vaccines. But the reality is far from it. The Covax program is handicapped by a lack of funds and supplies.
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Why is there a supply shortage?
The supply shortage is not only due to India’s covid catastrophe which has prompted the Indian government to suspend vaccine exports and use whatever vaccines available to immunize Indians. The supplies were also hampered by the US export ban on raw material required to make vaccines.
Some reports said the ban imposed under the US Defence Production Act by the previous Donald Trump administration was to be relaxed by the Joe Biden administration after India’s main vaccine producer Serum Institute went public questioning the unjust restrictions when country after country cried for the vaccine to escape from the covid calamity. But there is uncertainty over whether this has been done.
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In spite of the man-made patent barriers that let the pandemic spread uncontrollably, the WHO has delivered some 49 million doses to poor nations. But this is just 0.3 percent of the requirement.
WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the Covax program needs a further $35bn-$45bn over the next 12 months to meet the target.
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Why is this money not readily available? Why cannot rich nations be altruistic? Probably the parsimony is because these nations, including the US and several European Union countries, have invested billions of dollars in these companies and are jealously guarding the patent rights of the Covid vaccines to make profits.
A time for profit-making?
The Covid pandemic is not the time for business or profit-making. This is the cry from the Gloucestershire grave wherein buried Sir Edward Jenner, the humanitarian physician who discovered vaccine in the late 18th century and treated patients free of charge at a time when smallpox was killing millions.
In March this year, a New York Times article written by Selam Gebrekidan and Matt Apuzzo had this to say: “By partnering with drug companies, Western leaders bought their way to the front of the line. But they also ignored years of warnings—and explicit calls from the World Health Organization—to include contract language that would have guaranteed doses for poor countries or encouraged companies to share their knowledge and the patents they control.”
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The writers also pointed out that a growing number of health officials and advocacy groups worldwide were calling for Western governments to use aggressive powers — most of them rarely or never used before — to force companies to publish vaccine recipes, share their know-how and ramp up manufacturing.
A nation clinging on to patents when patients perish in their thousands every day – in India alone some 4,000 people died of COVID-19 on Wednesday, taking the global death toll to 3,255,327 – is akin to aiding and abetting genocide.
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Yet, the corporate media have no moral compunction when they defend the intellectual property rights, patents, and capitalist world’s immorality.
This is while scientists who helped discover the vaccine and health right groups have called on the Biden administration to share the vaccine recipe with anyone willing to produce vaccines, so that the pandemic can be eliminated, and lives saved.
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Rich nations should act now
WHO Director-General Adhanom Ghebreyesus said recently that of the 225 million vaccine doses that had been administered so far, the vast majority had been in a handful of rich and vaccine producing countries, while most low- and middle-income countries watched and waited.
“A me-first approach might serve short-term political interests, but it is self-defeating,” he said.
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As the call grows for the rich nations to waive the covid vaccine’s patent rights – with India and South Africa together with 60 nations campaigning for it for the past six months at the World Trade Organisation — the Biden administration on Wednesday made the announcement the world has been waiting for.
But it will be months before the WTO surmounts the opposition from Britain and the EU and finds the consensus required to waive the patent barrier.
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By that time, we do not know how many millions would have been afflicted and how many would have died. Probably the vaccine-rich nation finds refuge in Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s saying that a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are mere statistics.