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The Financial Express

Search for a Covid-19 vaccine for all: Clashes with politics and profit

Anis Chowdhury   | Published: May 21, 2020 21:34:32


Search for a Covid-19 vaccine for all: Clashes with politics and profit

With the number of Covid-19 infections worldwide nearing the 5.0 million mark and more than 315,000 deaths, the race to find an effective and affordable vaccine is in full swing. Across the world, more than 115 coronavirus vaccines are being developed. Eight human trials are underway - five in China. More than 1100 clinical studies have been registered globally in the three months since coronavirus emerged. Interestingly, there has never been a trial going from idea to implement phase so quickly.

PEOPLE'S VACCINE:  More than 140 world leaders and experts, have signed an open letter calling on all governments to unite behind a people's vaccine against Covid-19. The call was made just days before health ministers met virtually for the 73rd World Health Assembly on 18-19 May.

Setting out the most ambitious position of world leaders on a Covid-19 vaccine, the letter demands that all vaccines, treatments and tests be patent-free, mass-produced, distributed fairly and made available to all people, in all countries, free of charge.

One of the signatories of the letter, South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa, said, "Billions of people today await a vaccine that is our best hope for ending this pandemic... Nobody should be pushed to the back of the vaccine queue because of where they live or what they earn."

Imran Khan, Pakistan's Prime Minister, another signatory said, "We must work together to beat this virus. We must pool all the knowledge, experience and resources at our disposal for the good of all humanity."

The letter, coordinated by UNAIDS and Oxfam, warns that the world cannot afford monopolies and competition to stand in the way of the need to save lives.

GLOBAL PUBLIC GOOD: WHO Leaders call Covid-19 vaccines a "global public good". The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres emphasised that everybody in the world, wherever he or she may be, must have access to medical care and when ready, access to the vaccine which is a global public good.

President Xi of China said, "Covid-19 vaccine development and deployment in China, when available, will be made a global public good. This will be China's contribution to ensuring vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries." China's President Xi offered US$2.0 billion to the WHO in addition to its annual US$76.0 million membership dues.

President Moon of South Korea stated, "We must cooperate beyond our borders and such vaccines and treatments are public goods which must be distributed equitably to the whole world".

President Macron increased French support to the WHO and its Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT)-Accelerator to have "massive support to research to speed up the results of medical research and to ensure we can guarantee universal access". He further said that "if we discover a vaccine against COVID-19, it would be a global public good and everyone should have access to it."

THE US STAYS OUT: The United States (US) opposed the term "global public good". It rejected the provisions on pooling or sharing vaccine developments to the benefit of poorer countries, saying that this would "send wrong message to innovators."

President Trump wrote a tough letter to the WHO Director-General, demanding "substantive", but unspecified "improvements" at the WHO within 30 days, or else he would permanently stop US funding which he has already suspended. He also threatened that the US would consider leaving the WHO.

The US also did not join the April world leaders' pledge to accelerate work on Covid-19. It ignored a pledge (May 4) by international leaders and organisations to spend US$8.0 billion to manufacture and make available a possible vaccine and treatments. Such incidents highlight concerns over possibly exclusive US control of an effective Covid-19 vaccine.

AMERICA FIRST: After mismanaging the Covid-19 outbreak and recording the highest global infection cases (over 1.6 million) and death (close to 100 thousand), President Trump has upped his 'America First' rhetoric to restore USA's prestige, especially less than six months away from elections.

In March, a German newspaper, Die Welt am Sonntag, reported that President Trump offered the German biotech company, CureVac, roughly US$1.0 billion in exchange for exclusive access to the vaccine. The New York Times also cited Germany's interior minister as having said that he had "heard from several members of the government" about the US administration's efforts to take over a German company researching vaccines.

A week ago, the CEO of the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi remarked that the US government had "the right to the largest pre-order because it's invested in taking the risk".

Both revelations infuriated national leaders. The French Prime Minister quickly responded by saying access for all was "non-negotiable". Sanofi backed down, having received some €150.0m (US$162.0m) in research tax credits and millions more in other French government tax credits for such vaccine research.

German MPs and ministers reacted angrily to the report, criticising the display of 'self-interest' and accusing the US president of electioneering. The German foreign minister said, "We cannot allow a situation where others want to exclusively acquire the results of their research."

US ACCUSES CHINA: Trump administration's practice of blaming China for the origin and spread of SARS-Cov-2 virus that causes Covid-19 has gone as far bringing espionage charges against China. In a rare joint-statement, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security accused that Chinese-backed hackers were trying to steal intellectual property in their search for coronavirus vaccines, treatments and testing.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that it is an extension of China's "counterproductive actions" throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. But he produces no evidence, other than saying that China "continues to silence scientists, journalists, and citizens, and to spread disinformation".

PRESTIGE, POLITICS AND PROFIT: The search for Covid-19 vaccine is like 'the new space race'; it is a matter of prestige, especially when the pandemic ravaged some leading countries' reputation. Wining the Covid-19 vaccine race will also give the country an edge in global supremacy.

It is also a matter of domestic politics and profit. Whichever country is the first to the prize will be able to protect its own citizens and the government's popularity will soar. The country is also likely to reap big profits by selling the vaccine to the rest of the world.

Therefore, the international race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine could pit nations against each other if politicians bow to either political pressures to put their own citizens at the front of the queue for a jab, or their big pharmaceutical companies' thirst for profit.

Other countries are also signalling their intention to prioritise their own citizens, e.g., the chief executive of the Serum Institute of India, the world's largest producer of vaccines, has said that its vaccines "would have to go to our countrymen before it goes abroad".

During the Swine flu pandemic in 2009, some wealthy countries entered into contracts with 'big pharmas', effectively monopolising the H1N1 swine flu vaccine at the expense of poorer nations, who were pushed to the back of the queue.

After producing a promising Zika vaccine in 2017, the US Army assigned production rights to Sanofi. The deal later fell through after profiteering criticisms by watchdog organisations and Senator Bernie Sanders.

Drugs research and development are usually driven by the prospect of profits. Only a few giant companies have the ability to develop and produce a vaccine from start to finish, due to the expense and timescale involved.

Historically, most vaccines have been developed in the North, often reaching the South much later. Despite enjoying extended monopolies through the patent system, typically at the expense of public health, limited prospects for lucrative profits from developing affordable medicines and vaccines for developing countries have discouraged such investments.

Both Sanofi and Johnson & Johnson have the US government partnerships to develop potential treatments, but US Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar, refuses to guarantee they will be affordable.

LESSONS OF HISTORY: Unprecedented cooperation between the two superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union, played a critical role in eradicating long dreaded smallpox, with 30.0 per cent mortality among the infected and once responsible for 10.0 per cent of the world's blind. In 1958, the Soviet Union had urged the WHO to eradicate smallpox and offered funding for a plan. Surprising many, the US under a Republican President Eisenhower, already the WHO's major funder, agreed, resulting in the rivals' most successful collaboration during the Cold War.

In 1967 the WHO, launched a global campaign against smallpox, when there were over 2.50 million cases worldwide, hoping to eradicate it within 10 years. The programme was initially implemented in developing countries with vaccine donations from countries including then Cold War rivals, the USA and the Soviet Union. Gradually, developing countries acquired vaccine producing and vaccination capabilities with technical assistance from developed countries.

Within eight years, smallpox was almost eradicated. But it surged in Bangladesh in 1974, with war-time dislocated citizens returning from India, after it was eradicated in 1970. Smallpox was completely eradicated in 1977.

Solidarity, by ensuring that vaccines and life-saving drugs are available to all, including the most vulnerable, has enabled humanity to defeat dreadful communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, polio and HIV-AIDS.

When Jonas Salk developed polio vaccine, he insisted it remained patent free. When asked who owned the patent, he replied "The people I would say. There is no patent. You might as well ask, could you patent the sun?"

Anis Chowdhury, Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney University and the University of New South Wales (Australia) and founding co-editor of Journal of the Asia Pacific Economy; he held senior United Nations positions during

2008-2015 in New York and Bangkok. anis.z.chowdhury@gmail.com

 

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