The fallacy of “bilateral cooperation” between Botswana and the United States as well as with both the European Union and Canada is being laid bare as western countries position themselves to hoard the COVID-19 vaccine at the expense of Batswana who are dying and will die of a virus ravaging the world.
During the worst public health emergency that the world has known in a century, the US, EU and Canada are using their economic muscle and control of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) processes to deny poor countries access to top vaccines developed in the west. In terms of the roll-out of vaccines that have been developed so far, WTO has become more important than a sister international body that should be more important – the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Western medical science is essentially about making money and not saving lives. That has become evident with the development of COVID-19 vaccines by three different companies in the west: Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca. According to analysis conducted by kENUP Foundation, a European health research foundation, western governments spent €88.3 billion (about P1.2 trillion) for the development of COVID vaccines. This was an investment and those governments now want returns on an investment that has extremely high economic value. That is an objective that can be achieved through the WTO and not WHO.
The vaccines are protected under the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS). For months now, India and South Africa have been asking the WTO to suspend all patents for any COVID-19 vaccines. At a TRIPS Council meeting last month, India made the quite legitimate case that a “global solution” was needed for a global pandemic that has adversely impacted the global community. Backed by Kenya and eSwatini, the two countries have asked the WTO to ask for a temporary waiver of patent obligations under the TRIPS Agreement for the vaccines. They have asked the international trade body to temporarily waive Sections 1, 4, 5 and 7 of Part II of the TRIPS Agreement related to copyright, patent, trade secrets, protection of undisclosed information and industrial designs until a majority of the world population has been inoculated and developed immunity. In terms of such proposal, countries would ensure their citizens access to the vaccines in a timely manner by producing generic versions of these treatments and vaccines.
However, such overtures are being fiercely resisted by western powers that have invested heavily in the development of the vaccines. These powers insist on sharing their vaccines in line with the intellectual property rights that are safeguarded under TRIPs. The latter basically places capitalist profit over human need and a World Bank Chief Economist, Joseph Stiglitz, has described it as “a death warrant for thousands of people in the poorest countries of the world.” As many have stated, WTO itself is a proxy for safeguarding western economic interests.
In light of the WTO’s current position, access to COVID-19 vaccines will be determined by how much mass of financial muscle a country can flex. Naturally, that will present an unusual challenge for Third World countries whose economies have been ravaged by the pandemic. Last year, it was revealed that Botswana lost P10 billion in the tourism sector alone due to COVID-19. However, even countries that manage to scrape together enough money to buy vaccine doses will face another hurdle: already, rich nations are pre-ordering more doses than they need. According to People’s Vaccine Alliance, a coalition including Oxfam, Amnesty International and Global Justice Now, rich nations, which are home to 13 per cent of the global population, had bought 53 per cent of the total stock of the most-promising vaccines as at December last year.
The US government has made a deal to buy 1.1 billion doses of a half-dozen vaccines in various stages of development and is expected to end up with far more doses than what is needed to vaccinate every American. Currently, Canada has pre-ordered the vaccines for ten times its population. France has secured enough vaccine to inoculate each citizen five times. Other wealthy countries (which include Japan and South Korea) have bought an additional 2.9 billion doses in bilateral deals with drug makers.
On the whole, the west has put its worst impulses on full display. For poor countries, the alternative to the vaccines that the worst in the west are blocking full access to and hoarding is COVAX, a global scheme to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries that is being overseen by WHO. Thus COVAX has become the only real hope of ending the COVID-19 pandemic with a vaccine.
COVAX, which is funded by governments, vaccine manufacturers, other organisations and individuals, with $1.4bn committed so far and more funds urgently needed, works in the following way. The scheme makes arrangements with private vaccine producers, who are then entered in its portfolio, enabling countries to make advance purchases of large volumes of vaccines. In this way, poor countries are given the opportunity to strike deals with private producers in the COVAX portfolio for a nominal sum or even for free. So far, 156 countries, representing nearly two thirds of the global population, have signed up for COVAX. Botswana is also among countries that have signed up for this “poor man’s vaccine.” Through Astra-Zeneca and Johnson & Johnson, COVAX has secured 2 billion doses through supply agreements and the first doses will be delivered in the first quarter of 2021.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s Director-General, says that under COVAX, all countries will have “guaranteed access to the world’s largest portfolio of vaccine candidates.” A press statement from WHO says that “by pooling financial and scientific resources, these participating economies will be able to insure themselves against the failure of any individual vaccine candidate and secure successful vaccines in a cost-effective, targeted way.”
However, a confidential report that was leaked to Reuters shows that COVAX is already experiencing problems. The report, which is an analysis that was prepared by a Wall Street bank, says that “the risk of a failure to establish a successful COVAX facility is very high.” Such risks stem from lack of funds, supply logistics, complex contractual arrangements and clauses in supply contracts that allow countries not to buy vaccines booked through COVAX. Perhaps the biggest risk is one that has been identified by the Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University in the US. Some 64 high-income countries have already joined the scheme and according to the Center, “some rich participants have undermined the initiative by cutting additional side deals with drug companies, reducing the amount of vaccine available for COVAX.”
Notwithstanding this stark “vaccine nationalism”, western nation still peddle the myth that they want Africa to overcome COVID-19. Last month, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (European CDC) and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) launched a new partnership initiative “to strengthen the capacity of Africa CDC to prepare for and respond to public health threats in Africa.” The four-year project is called “EU for health security in Africa: European CDC for Africa CDC.”