President Biden came to office with a promise to change course and take urgent action to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. One thing his administration could do right now: Reverse the Trump Administration’s action at the World Trade Organization that cut off vaccine access to many poorer countries. Supporting the so-called “TRIPS Waiver” is within the Biden Administration’s power, and has the potential to save thousands of lives. How did we get here? The story is another example of how trade deals are often rigged to put corporate profits ahead of our own health and our communities.
End the Global Vaccine Apartheid
“A global vaccine apartheid is unfolding.” Those are the words of Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAids and a UN Undersecretary General. At the beginning of the pandemic, global leaders pledged to do everything in their powers to ensure equitable access to tests, treatments, and vaccines for COVID-19. Yet as the pandemic has continued, that’s not what has happened. Instead, a report shows that 9 in 10 people in poorer, majority Black and Brown countries will not get vaccinated until sometime in 2024, unless urgent action is taken. Meanwhile, wealthier nations have hoarded enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations three times over by the end of 2021 (assuming all trials go as planned). Countries like the U.S., Canada, and the UK have just 14% of the world’s population, but have contracts for 53% of the most promising vaccines.
So far, while the President has committed to addressing racial inequities and ending the pandemic, his administration has stayed silent on the World Trade Organization (WTO) rule that is enforcing this vast inequality. But it is well within their power to take action.
Back in October 2020, India and South African representatives introduced a proposal that would allow for increased production of a COVID-19 vaccine and rush more urgently needed doses to people around the globe. The proposal specifically calls for a temporary waiver of the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement, allowing generic and other manufacturers to make more doses of live-saving vaccines. Big Pharma companies oppose such a move as it would undercut their profits. Yet these vaccines developed by AstraZeneca/Oxford, Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech have received more than $100 billion dollars in public financing. Big Pharma corporations are more than happy for the public to take the risk while they reap all the profits. In an even more grim irony, many people in India, South Africa, and Brazil who participated in vaccine trials would likely be denied access to doses if the status quo prevails.
Trade Deals Need to Put People Before Profits
In this case, there is a relatively simple action that the Biden administration can take – in fact, all they need to do is drop their opposition to the TRIPS waiver and put saving lives before protecting corporate monopolies.
The challenge of vaccine distribution is yet another way that this pandemic is revealing the ways that our system is rigged in favor of protecting corporate power and profits. Too often, trade deals are inked behind closed doors. Corporate lobbyists help write in their clients’ priorities, while civil society, those advocating for working people and the environment, are sidelined. The result: rules that protect corporate profits over the clear, pressing interest we all have in ending this pandemic.
And let’s be clear—there are outsized profits being made. The World Health Organization has warned against “vaccine nationalism” and price-gouging as Pfizer/BioNTech is on track to pocket an 80% profit margin. That’s the same Pfizer who was heavily involved in writing the very global trade rules that established corporate intellectual property as we know it in 1995. Before that, countries had their own rules—indeed, before TRIPS, India didn’t allow its well-developed pharmaceutical industry to patent drugs. These international norms are relatively new—and crafted by the same corporations who stand to profit from them.
WTO Rules Enforce Inequities
These World Trade Organization (WTO) rules also further reinforce the long-standing inequities in our global trade system. The conflict playing out right now with richer countries blocking vaccine access has a long history–and it begins with the very division of the world into richer and poorer countries. Countries like the U.S. and United Kingdom have amassed great wealth through colonization and exploitation of people & communities around the globe. By one calculation, Britain extracted nearly $45 trillion from India during the colonial period from 1765-1938. These “rich” countries are the same ones who have been exploiting the global trading system for centuries. And the WTO rules too often help enforce and continue that same balance of power and entrench the legacy of colonialism.
South Africa’s health ministry reports that they were set to be charged 2.5 times more than European Union countries for doses of the same COVID-19 vaccine. Big Pharma corporations price gouging has the potential to drive poorer countries deeper into debt—and drag on the pandemic. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Advocates in South Africa fought hard to get HIV/AIDS drugs, and with them the understanding that access to essential medicines is a human right. Instead of permitting corporate monopolies on intellectual property—especially life-saving medicines developed with public funding—it’s time to recognize that these vaccines are “a global public good.”
Access to Essential Medicines is a Human Right
“Failure to change course will come at the cost of millions of lives and livelihoods around the world; to our progress on tackling poverty…and to our collective public health and economic security,” warns Winnie Byanyima. The world’s richest nations have hoarded enough COVID-19 vaccine to treat their populations three times over by the end of 2021. Meanwhile, billions of people will go without for years. This disparity is a human rights and racial justice issue.
It is also a practical one. As long as outbreaks continue, more variants can emerge to contend with the vaccines. Until people worldwide can access vaccines and treatments, there can be no end to the public health or economic crises anywhere.