Once again, capitalist greed predominates over human need — with very dire consequences.
In the world’s worst wave of coronavirus cases, which began in late March, India reported its largest daily death figures — 4,187 people as of May 8. In the third-highest global death toll, over 242,000 people have died in India from COVID. On May 9, India reported 403,738 additional positive cases, bringing reported infections to over 22 million.
These deaths occur despite the existence of billions of excess doses of coronavirus vaccines across the world. Since they were cleared for emergency use in late 2020, 87% of COVID-19 vaccines have gone to the wealthiest countries. Low-income countries have received just 0.2%.
This vaccine apartheid is causing millions of avoidable cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Emergency steps must be taken now to waive “intellectual property” patent rights that give big pharmaceutical companies a stranglehold over production and distribution.
The world’s richest countries have purchased more doses than they need. Ironically, India — one of the world’s top pharmaceutical producers — cannot produce what it needs to vaccinate its 1.3 billion people without imports from the U.S.
Serum Institute of India is a biotech and pharmaceutical company responsible for 60% of the world’s vaccine supply. Yet limits imposed by the U.S. and European Union on exportation of key COVID-19 vaccine production materials have created severe vaccine shortages throughout India.
To allow pharmaceutical giant Merck to ramp up production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in February, President Joe Biden invoked the U.S. Defense Production Act that limited export of manufacturing supplies needed for COVID-19 vaccine production. This includes bags, filters and other critical supplies manufactured in the U.S. The European Union imposed similar export limits in late March.
This is not just a crisis for India. Billions of people in the poorest countries — in Africa, Latin America and Asia — are also impacted.
People before profits!
India was a major vaccine supplier to COVAX, an international COVID-19 manufacturing and distribution agreement created in April 2020 with the goal of delivering over 2 billion doses to the world’s 92 poorest countries by the end of 2021. But the export bans, hoarding and supply shortages threaten a catastrophe for Africa, which has expected to get its vaccine supplies through COVAX.
Due to massive global disparities in vaccine access, in October 2020 India and South Africa sought an emergency waiver at the World Trade Organization. But negotiations were blocked by the U.S. and other wealthy countries. Bowing to intense international pressure, the Biden administration recently announced support for temporarily waiving patent and intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines and manufacturing technology.
Yet even Biden’s tentative support for lifting restrictions was met with a backlash from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a powerful pharmaceutical industry trade group concerned that the move could threaten the profits of Big Pharma companies which control vaccine patents. To pressure Biden to reverse course, PhRMA spent record amounts of money on lobbying in the first quarter of 2021.
Pfizer, whose vaccine sales have generated $3.5 billion in profits, spent $3.7 million lobbying against any patent waiver.
If vaccines and access to the technology to produce them are not shared, poorer countries may not get enough doses for their people until 2024, resulting in millions more preventable deaths and the worldwide spread of new virus variants.
Human need must be put before corporate profits.