System change, not charity, will end the vaccine apartheid

The Global South does not need charity, it needs G7 countries to lift their objections to scrapping rules which put making profit ahead of saving lives.

A health worker prepares an injection with a dose of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, at a vaccination centre in Westfield Stratford City shopping centre, amid the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in London, UK, on February 18, 2021 [Henry Nicholls/File Photo/Reuters]

Late last week, the leaders of the most powerful countries on earth seemed to have been infected with a bout of internationalism. Ahead of a G7 meeting hosted by the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for a speeding up of vaccine development and more support to COVAX, the body which is supposed to ensure fair distribution of vaccines around the world. Johnson said “the hopes of the world rest on the shoulders of scientists”.

Not to be outdone, on the eve of the meeting French President Emmanuel Macron called for wealthier countries to donate 5 percent of their vaccines to Africa immediately, warning: “We are allowing the idea to take hold [that] hundreds of millions of vaccines are being given in rich countries and that we are not starting in poor countries.”

The problem Johnson and Macron outlined is only too real. The UN made clear that 75 percent of all COVID-19 vaccine doses administered to date have taken place in just 10 countries. Meantime, 130 countries have not so much as sniffed a dose. By hoarding vaccines, and bypassing international solutions to the pandemic, G7 governments have created vaccine apartheid.

Allowing the coronavirus to spread unchecked in some countries will encourage more mutations, some of which could undermine the effectiveness of vaccines even in countries well stocked with doses. But Johnson, Macron and other G7 leaders’ “internationalism” was really driven by two more cynical motives.

First, with China and Russia distributing their own vaccines globally, the G7 fear they are losing the diplomatic war, weakening their power over the Global South in the longer term. Second, the outrage over vaccine inequality is pushing many world leaders and experts to back the proposal of India and South Africa to scrap patents on COVID-19-related medicines and allow them to be produced on a much wider scale. Johnson and Macron are fastidious supporters of the intellectual property system which benefit their own pharmaceutical industry, and they’re determined to see off any challenge to Big Pharma profits.

Given this starting point, the G7’s proposals do not come close to meeting the needs of the world at this moment. Johnson’s pledge is nothing short of insulting. The UK, which has ordered many times the vaccines our population will ever require, has simply offered to offload surplus doses at some distant point in the future when it has made absolutely sure they will never need those vaccines.

At first glance, it looks like the worst form of charity – handing over some old clothes only when you are sure you will never wear them again. But in fact, it is not even charity, as it seems Johnson, who appears to misunderstand the word “donation”, could actually charge lower-income countries for the UK’s cast-offs.

The elephant in the Zoom call on Friday was the patent system. There is a very genuine solution being put forward by many southern countries, led by South Africa and India, and joined yesterday by the 55 countries of the African Union, to suspend patents on COVID-19-related vaccines, treatments and protective equipment. If the technology behind these medicines was openly shared it could be produced in larger quantities, across the world. As things stand, the patent system means even major vaccine manufacturers are producing very little of these products we all need so desperately.

In the coming weeks, meetings at the World Trade Organization will again pit the North against the Global South on this issue. It is the most rank hypocrisy for those countries which pre-purchased the majority of the vaccines for 2021, to tell less wealthy countries they cannot produce their own medicines without express authorisation from big business. Their arguments focus on the need to create incentives for innovation. But this is nonsense because the COVID-19 vaccines have been produced largely with public money, with companies given indemnity if anything goes wrong.

What is really at stake is profit. Last year, Big Pharma’s corporate executives made half a billion dollars selling rapidly inflating corporate stock. Moderna’s executives accounted for the main bulk of this – on the basis of a vaccine made entirely with pubic funding. Pfizer expects to make $15bn off its vaccine this year, enjoying a profit margin of more than 25 percent.

The global patent system has wreaked havoc on the world’s ability to deal with health emergencies ever since it was created, by businesses like Pfizer, back in the 1990s. It caused mass death and suffering in southern Africa during the HIV/AIDS crisis, where millions were denied access to medicines so Big Pharma monopolies would be protected. Ever since, the Global South has been priced out of numerous vital medicines by this same system. And now, it is responsible for dividing the world into two camps: countries that are rapidly vaccinating their people against COVID-19, and those that have no chance of achieving immunity for several years.

It is time to put an end to this system. Even if it takes time, we need to build a global health system based on collaboration and sharing. It is within our grasp if we can overcome opposition from the richest in the world. Let us not be taken in by the G7’s less than generous donations. The Global South does not need charity, it needs G7 countries to lift their objections to scrapping rules which put making a profit ahead of saving lives.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.