PM Boris Johnson attributed the UK’s vaccine success to “capitalism” and “greed”. It’s extremely difficult to see how greed will help ensure the vaccine is made available for all people, in all countries, free of charge.
Mariana Mazzucato is professor in the economics of innovation and public value at University College London, and the founding director of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) explained that private enterprise and entrepreneurship was not the key to the rapid development and roll-out of a COVID-19 vaccine. The private sector takes the plaudits but more importantly it also takes the profits.
The “AstraZeneca” vaccine was created by scientists at the University of Oxford and developed and distributed by the pharmaceutical giant.
The leading six vaccine candidates have received an estimated $12bn (£8.7bn) of taxpayer and public money, including $1.7bn for the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab and $2.5bn for the Pfizer/BioNTech candidate.
Governments have committed to guarantees that private companies that successfully produce a Covid-19 vaccine are amply rewarded with huge orders.
Britain’s lack of capacity to manufacture sufficient doses is far from a given. Britain’s long-term failure to support its domestic manufacturing base reflected in recent quarrels between the EU and UK over the supply of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab. Prior to the crisis, the UK had been disinterested in investing in a domestic industrial base to mass-produce vaccines and other life science products.
Addressing pharmaceutical companies’ monopoly over the science, know-how and technology, and sharing this with as many countries as possible, will be essential to scaling up and decentralising vaccine manufacturing across the world. The World Health Organization has established a voluntary Covid-19 technology access pool (C-Tap) to enable governments and companies to do just this. In addition, South Africa and India have tabled a proposal to the WHO, backed by more than 100 countries, to temporarily waive intellectual property rights for Covid-related technologies. A recent poll found that 74% of people in the UK are supportive of these positions. In response, the government has overlooked the C-Tap and blocked the temporary waiver on intellectual property.
When greed is a government’s guiding philosophy, “vaccine apartheid” is all but guaranteed. Already, 56% of more than 455m doses of vaccine have gone to people in high-income countries and just 0.1% have been administered in the 29 lowest-income countries. Covax, which aims to vaccinate up to 27% of the population in 92 of the poorest countries, is unlikely to be enough on its own.