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OP-ED: Big pharma profits in the pandemic

  • Published at 03:36 am October 26th, 2021
Abdala Covid vaccine
Reuters

Since the global extension of the pandemic, the debate on patents has become central

Not only does “Big Pharma” not share scientific findings, it also grabs them for itself and makes others pay for them. It takes over findings of research carried out in universities or public research centres. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and big powers have used their influence through their position as creditors to force reluctant developing countries to sign the TRIPs agreement.

Peter Rossman, a critic of multinationals’ aggressive penetration in the global market in the South, writes that, “Their greatest financial asset is the patents which generate 80% of their profits.”

Since the global extension of the pandemic, the debate on patents has become central. This is literally a life or death issue since, and if patents are not lifted, a large part of the population in the global South that might wish to be vaccinated will have no access to vaccines within a reasonable time frame.

Amnesty International reported on September 22 that less than 1% of the population in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated, and that out of the 5.76 billion doses injected in the world, only 0.3% have been used in those countries.

The report -- titled “A Double Dose of Inequality” -- exposes the attitude of six big private companies producing the majority of anti-Covid vaccines in rich countries (AstraZeneca, BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Novavax, and Pfizer).

Amnesty says: “Six companies at the helm of the global Covid-19 vaccine roll-out are fuelling an unprecedented human rights crisis because of their refusal to waive intellectual property rights and share vaccine technology, with most of the companies failing to prioritize vaccine deliveries to poorer countries.”

COVAX, which is co-led by GAVI, is not a solution. The COVAX initiative reveals the unwillingness of the various WHO member states to take responsibility for the struggle against the pandemic, in regards to public health.

Governments in countries of the South who wish to give their population the possibility of getting vaccinated will have to contract debts since COVAX-type initiatives are blatantly wanting and reinforce the hold of the private sector.

COVAX is run jointly by three entities: 1) The GAVI Alliance, which is a private structure that brings together companies and states; 2) The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which is another private structure that also includes capitalist companies and states; and 3) The WHO, which is a UN specialized agency.

So far, not a single vaccine producer has shared patents or know-how via C-TAP (Covid-19 Technology Access Pool). Three of the six biggest companies producing COVID vaccines -- BioNTech, Moderna, and Pfizer -- will take in $130 billion in income by the end of 2022.

How does big pharma appropriate knowledge and profits in a time of coronavirus? Knowledge, scientific discoveries, and technical processes ought to be the common goods of humankind.

A country can be forced to implement the TRIPs agreement through the WTO’s own dispute settlement system. That means that if a country does not fulfil its obligations in terms of intellectual property rights, it may be subject to trade sanctions, which is a serious threat.

COVAX had promised to supply, by the end of 2021, 2 billion doses to the countries of the South. All the major powers of the North have fallen short of the promises they made.

Initiatives such as COVAX or C-TAP have failed miserably, not only because of their inadequacy, but above all because they reflect the failure of the current system of global governance in which rich countries and multinationals, often in the form of foundations, seek to reshape the world order to their liking.

Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at <[email protected]>; Twitter @saleemsamad.

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