The health of all people is being sacrificed to Big Pharma profits.
In advance of the 12th Ministerial of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which took place in June, the UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima appealed that the world would face a grim future if patent waivers did not take place.
Byanyima said, “In a pandemic, sharing technology is life or death, and we are choosing death.”
The WTO blocked almost all possibilities of providing cheap vaccines, antiviral drugs and diagnostics to the world.
After two years of the WTO “postponing” the India-South Africa proposal for a waiver on patents for COVID-19 vaccines and medicines, the EU, the US and the UK ensured that no worthwhile patent waiver measure was passed. Big Pharma profits once again trumped the lives and health of the people.
In vaccine manufacture, it is not the formula of the vaccine that matters but rather manufacturing it at an industrial scale and ensuring the production process of replicates complex large molecules accurately. This know-how is guarded not under patents but under trade secrets. It is possible to duplicate these trade secrets or secure them by giving somebody who knows the process the job. But this opens companies that try to do this to costly legal action. And there is also the threat of unilateral sanctions by the United States, the EU and the UK.
The upshot is that Big Pharma companies will continue to make huge profits at the expense of people’s lives, even if this leads to new SARS-CoV-2 variants emerging and causes the continuation of the pandemic. We have the vaccine production capacity to immunize the entire global population, thus saving countless lives and reducing the possibility of new, dangerous variants emerging. But doing so is not in the interest of Big Pharma, for whom profits matter far more than human lives.
Why is immunizing the global population important? Simply put, the more people that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) infects, the more the chance of new variants emerging. There is a misguided belief among some people that the more the virus mutates, the more benign it is likely to become. This used to be a common opinion among a section of the medical community. However, today evolutionary biologists hold that there is no evidence that viruses mutate to become more benign. The longer we live with a pandemic that continues to infect around half a million to a million people every day, the more we are dicing with the possibility of a new variant emerging that can be as transmissible as omicron and can also lead to larger case fatalities than we have seen before.
Pfizer’s profits roughly doubled in 2021 from 2020, with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine contributing to a significant part of those profits. If Pfizer were a country, its earnings of $81 billion last year would have placed it ahead of the GDP of countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya.
Why don’t countries that have the capacity to manufacture advanced vaccines—India, China, Russia and South Africa—come together to offer technology and supplies to the rest of the world? Why don’t countries collaborate with Cuba, a potential biological powerhouse, to produce vaccines locally? Cuba has already developed five such vaccines, two of which are already under large-scale production.
The answer lies with the “rules-based international order” and intellectual property laws.