Millions more people will die from Covid-19 in the coming year, and most will be unvaccinated. The vaccines that could save millions of lives are not reaching the poor majority of the world’s population. The contrast is stark: the current share of people fully vaccinated in high, upper-middle income, lower-middle income and low income countries is 69%, 68%, 30% and 3.5% respectively.
The UK, Canada, Germany and other EU states have supported a deliberate policy to withhold vaccines from the poorest countries in the world, and defended an immoral and unethical economic system which places big pharma patents ahead of millions of lives.
Anthony Costello, a professor of global health at University College London and former director of the WHO's maternal, child, and adolescent health program, wrote in The Guardian that wealthy countries' hoarding of doses and refusal share vaccine technology could constitute "crimes against humanity" and that international lawyers should consider pursuing charges.
The official statistics of global Covid deaths (5.2 million) greatly underestimate the real figures, which may already be more than 20 million deaths. In India, for example, analyses suggest that the real death rates are 10 times higher than the official figure of 400,000. Meanwhile, another study has found that more than 1.5 million children have been orphaned by the pandemic.
Patent-protected vaccines are sold at great profit to wealthy countries by a few pharmaceutical companies. The global vaccine price ranges from $2 (for AstraZeneca) to $37 per dose, with mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna the most expensive. Between January 2020 and December 2021 the market capitalisations of Moderna rose from $6.9bn to $134bn; Pfizer from $206bn to $314bn; and BioNTech from $6.6bn to $84bn.
What can the world do when massive financial interests are placed before the survival of millions of men, women and children?
One is a patent waiver. A year ago India, South Africa, Kenya and Eswatini among others called for one, so that emerging economy companies were not under threat of future litigation. The USA and France eventually supported them. But Germany, Canada, Japan, South Korea and the UK blocked this move to protect big pharma. Bill Gates, a major donor to Covax, also defended patent rights. After months of wrangling, the WTO has failed to broker an agreement.