UN experts to G7: Access to COVID-19 vaccines in the Global South must outweigh profits for pandemic profiteering Big Pharma

Prioritize immediate access to life-saving COVID-19 vaccines for “billions” of people in the Global South over obscene profits for pandemic profiteering Big Pharma, UN human rights experts tell the leaders of the world’s largest economies ahead of this weekend's G7 summit in the UK.
Photo credit: Jess Hurd/Global Justice Now via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

BY OBERT MADONDO@Obiemad | JUN. 10, 2021

Global health, racial equity and immediate access to life-saving COVID-19 vaccines for “billions” of people in the Global South, which has BIPOC (Black people, Indigenous people, People of Colour) majorities, must outweigh obscene profits for pandemic profiteering Big Pharma.

That was the message delivered to the leaders of the world’s largest economies by a group of nine UN independent human rights experts this week ahead of the G7 summit being hosted by the UK on June 11-13, 2021.

As per a news release published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Wednesday, the experts said:

Everyone has a right to have access to a vaccine for COVID-19 that is safe, effective, timely and based on the application of the best scientific development. Now is the time for international solidarity and cooperation to provide effective assistance to all governments in their vaccination efforts and to save lives. It is not the time for protracted negotiations or for lobbying to erect barriers in order to protect corporate profits.

According to the UN experts:

Billions of people in the Global South are being left behind. They see vaccines as a mirage or a privilege for the developed world. This situation will unnecessarily prolong the crisis, drastically increase the death toll and deepen economic distress, possibly sowing the seeds of social unrest.

The world reached unprecedented scientific milestone of developing safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines within 16 months of the identification of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the international journal Nature. And yet, these vaccines are not available to all peoples of the world on an equitable basis.

The global distribution of life-saving COVID-19 vaccines has assumed the characteristics of the racist system of apartheid as it was implemented in South Africa. Apartheid deliberately prioritized the economic interests, hopes, dreams and survival of the minority white population. Apartheid deliberately deprived Black Africans, the majority and indigenous to South Africa, of access to land, economic opportunities, decent housing, healthcare, basic human rights, essential freedoms, and basic human dignity.

COVID-19 vaccine apartheid

In an opinion piece published in STAT in March, Jonathan Shaffer, a co-founder of Right to Health Action and Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Boston University, wrote:

Vaccine apartheid is an apt description of the injustice built into the current and persistent inequalities in vaccine access. The map of current Covid-19 vaccine access overlays neatly onto much older maps of colonial conquest.

The entire continent of Africa, the world’s second-largest and second-most populous continent, has so far received only about 2% of one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses administered worldwide.

The New York Times‘ COVID-19 “Vaccinations Tracker” uses data from the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford in the UK and other reputable global entities. On June 10, it reported:

More than 2.25 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, equal to 29 doses for every 100 people. There is already a stark gap between vaccination programs in different countries, with some yet to report a single dose… There is also a striking divide between continents. Africa has the slowest vaccination rate of any continent, with some countries yet to start mass vaccination campaigns… Less wealthy countries are relying on a vaccine-sharing arrangement called Covax, which aims to provide two billion doses by the end of the year. 85 percent of shots that have gone into arms worldwide have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Only 0.3 percent of doses have been administered in low-income countries.

As of June 10, The New York Times‘ COVID-19 “Vaccinations Tracker” showed that only 147,115 COVID-19 doses or 0.8 per 100 people, had been administered in Zambia, an impoverished, Black-majority African country from whose half-guarded economy Canada extracts tens of millions of dollars every year through largely unaccountable extractive businesses. By comparison, Canada had administered 27, 257, 774 COVID-19 doses or 73 per 100 people.

Last month, former British prime minister Gordon Brown added his voice the growing global criticism of the injustice of COVID-19 vaccine apartheid. According to Brown:

Immunising the west but only a fraction of the developing world is already fueling allegations of ‘vaccine apartheid’ and will leave Covid-19 spreading, mutating and threatening the lives and livelihoods of us all for years to come.

Then there is the question of leadership.

Lack of global political leadership

COVID-19 was a “preventable disaster” that became a pandemic due a lack of “global political leadership,” according to a high level report (PDF) issued last month by an independent panel of experts appointed by Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The 13-member Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR) was co-chaired by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand.

“Our message is simple and clear: the current system failed to protect us from the COVID-19 pandemic”, said Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Laureate and Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state, while introducing the panel’s report, entitled, “COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic”. “If we do not act to change it now, it will not protect us from the next pandemic threat, which could happen at any time.”

The panel published its findings and recommendations following an eight-month review of the global response to COVID-19 during the first year of the pandemic. After spending “the past eight months rigorously reviewing the evidence on how a disease outbreak became a pandemic, and on global and national responses,” according to the summary (PDF) of the panel’s report, the panel found that COVID-19 was “a preventable disaster” that instantly became a pandemic as a direct result of an absence of “global political leadership”. It found “gaps and failings,” as well as “weak links,” at “every critical juncture of preparedness” and response by countries around the world.

Canada

While addressing the Executive Board of the WHO in January, Ghebreyesus lamented the fact that, while life-saving COVID-19 vaccines now brought hope to some, they had also “become another brick in the wall of inequality between the world’s haves and have-nots.” The WHO chief said:

More than 39 million doses of vaccine have now been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries. Just 25 doses have been given in one lowest-income country. Not 25 million; not 25 thousand; just 25.

I need to be blunt: 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.

“Even as they speak the language of equitable access, some countries and companies continue to prioritize bilateral deals, going around COVAX, driving up prices and attempting to jump to the front of the queue. This is wrong.”

The WHO chief, diplomatic as usual, named no names. And yet, it’s impossible to ignore one of the numerous vivid images brought to life by his painful words – that of Canada and its supposedly compassionate Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.

On March 11, 2020, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Ghebreyesus labelled the deadly new coronavirus “an enemy against humanity”.

Meanwhile, a paper published by the Lancet in May 2020, warned about the “real” spectre of rich countries using their deep pockets to monopolize the global supply of future COVID-19 vaccines. Also in May 2020, Jane Halton, a former WHO board member and the Australian chairperson of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, warned that the development of an effective and safe COVID-19 vaccine could trigger a form of “vaccine nationalism” – a situation where “one country looks after itself first” and prioritizes its citizens’ survival “at the expense of the rest of the world”.

Canada and several rich countries with white majorities joined the COVAX facility, formally called COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, when it was created in early 2020. Co-led by the WHO, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, COVAX publicly recognizes the fact that poor countries in Africa, Asia, South America and other parts of the world won’t be able to strike bilateral vaccination supply deals with major COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers. COVAX is “the global initiative to ensure rapid and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all countries, regardless of income level,” according to the WHO. COVAX aims “to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.”

It’s reasonable to assume that, by bringing their countries to the COVAX initiative, the leaders of Canada and other Western, white-majority countries expressed a kinship with Black Africans and the BIPOC majorities of Africa, Latin America, South East Asia, and other low-income countries of the Global South.

The creation of effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines changed everything.

In the last 5 months of 2020, even before the vaccines had been approved, Canada, the US and other rich countries with white majorities hoarded most of the COVID-19 vaccines. They signed 44 bilateral COVID-19 vaccine supply deals with pharmaceutical companies developing COVID-19 vaccines, leaving dozens of developing countries with BIPOC majorities with next to nothing.

An editorial piece published by The Lancet on December 18, 2020, stated that “the EU, the UK, the USA, and Canada have already made deals with manufacturers to buy more than 50% of the doses expected to be available in 2021, despite these countries representing only 14% of the global population.” At the beginning of 2021, these countries signed 12 more bilateral deals with COVID-19 vaccine developers, according to the WHO.

By December 2020, Canada had grabbed a staggering 362 million doses of the different COVID-19 vaccines that had been developed through bilateral supply deals with pharmaceutical companies. At the time, that was enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to vaccinate each one of Canada’s 38 million people at least 9.6 times over.

Canada is also grabbing hundreds of millions of vaccines doses through the COVAX facility.

In March, Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Michael Spence decried “the ugliness of vaccine and other aspects of pandemic nationalism” in an interim paper entitled, “The Pandemic and the Economic Crisis“. The paper noted that Canada was one of the rich, white-dominated countries that “have ordered vaccine shots for more than ten times their current population” in violation of the “ethos of COVAX” and the global alliance’s main objective of facilitating “access to vaccines for all”.

As of April, Canada had hoarded enough vaccines to give each person here, myself included, 10 COVID-19 vaccine shots. Still, that is not enough.

Canada will potential received hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 vaccines doses under the Biden-Harris Administration’s recently-unveiled “strategy for global vaccine sharing”. Under the strategy, the U.S. will share at least 75% of 80 million COVID-19 vaccine doses worldwide through COVAX by the end of June. According to the White House:

This will maximize the number of vaccines available equitably for the greatest number of countries and for those most at-risk within countries. For doses shared through COVAX, the United States will prioritize Latin America and the Caribbean, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa, in coordination with the African Union.

Canada will receive a significant chunk of 25% of the gift to be shared “directly with countries in need, those experiencing surges, immediate neighbors, and other countries that have requested immediate U.S. assistance… Approximately 6 million will be targeted toward regional priorities and partner recipients, including Mexico, Canada, and the Republic of Korea, West Bank and Gaza, Ukraine, Kosovo, Haiti, Georgia, Egypt, Jordan, India, Iraq, and Yemen, as well as for United Nations frontline workers.”

In early May, the Biden-Harris Administration announced its support for the waiving of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) intellectual property rights for life-saving COVID-19 vaccines. The US will endorse a motion at the WTO, initially introduced by South Africa and India in October 2020.

In May, Pope Francis announced his support of of “universal access to the vaccine and the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights” for COVID-19 vaccines, according to The Guardian. The Argentinian pontiff condemned the “virus of individualism” that “makes us indifferent to the suffering of others”. Pope Francis said:

A variant of this virus is closed nationalism, which prevents, for example, an internationalism of vaccines. Another variant is when we put the laws of the market or intellectual property above the laws of love and the health of humanity.

In their letter to G7 leaders, the UN experts highlighted the importance of nuking draconian patent and related intellectual property protections that have thus far prevented the world from achieving global COVID-19 vaccines equity:

Maximising production of safe vaccines must take precedence over profiting from a global pandemic. States must ensure that legal protection for intellectual property and patents doesn’t undermine the right of everyone to get access to a safe, timely and effective vaccine.

The UN experts also called on pharmaceutical companies, which are mostly based in G7 countries, to support the WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), which was launched by the WHO and partners in May 2020 “to facilitate timely, equitable and affordable access of COVID-19 health products by boosting their supply”.

In the WHO’s own words:

C-TAP provides a global one-stop shop for developers of COVID-19 therapeutics, diagnostics, vaccines and other health products to share their intellectual property, knowledge, and data, with quality-assured manufacturers through public health-driven voluntary, non-exclusive and transparent licenses. By sharing intellectual property and know-how through the pooling and these voluntary agreements, developers of COVID-19 health products can facilitate scale up production through multiple manufacturers that currently have untapped capacity to scale up production.

In May, Ghebreyesus, the WHO chief, stated that the COVID-19 pandemic “is still evolving, and progressing around the world,” adding that, “globally, we are still in a perilous situation.”

In this weekend the moment the leaders of the world’s largest economies will finally muster the courage to prioritize the lives of poor people in the Global South over Big Pharma’s obscene COVID-19 pandemic profiteering?

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Obert Madondo
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, photographer, activist, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. Obert is the founder and editor of The Zimbabwean Progressive and The Canadian Progressive, both of which are independent political blogs dedicated to producing fearless, evidence-based, adversarial, unapologetic, progressive and activism-oriented journalism situated right at the intersection of politics, technology and human rights. Follow Obert on Twitter: @Obiemad