Vaccine nationalism: Poor countries wait while profits roll in for pharma giants
A medical staff dispays AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a site set up in Marseille, France, March 15, 2021. As wealthy countries proceed with mass vaccination campaigns, poorer countries face long waits for supply. | Daniel Cole / AP

On Jan. 18 this year, the head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus revealed that 25—yes, just 25 doses—had been administered across all the poorest countries, compared with 39 million doses in wealthier ones. He said the world was on the edge of a “catastrophic moral failure.”

Dr. Tedros criticized pharmaceutical companies for prioritizing vaccine approval in wealthier countries over submitting data to WHO to speed up the COVAX program, the organization’s initiative to accelerate the fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for people in all countries—especially lower income ones. He noted: “These actions will only prolong the pandemic.”

Fast forward a month, and Dr. Ifeanyi Nsoror, a Nigerian and senior Atlantic Fellow for health equity at George Washington University in the U.S., pointed out in an interview on Feb. 22 that no one in Nigeria, a country of 200 million people, had been vaccinated. Dr. Nsoror also pointed out that some of the Nigerian elite, including the current vice president, had flown to Dubai in the UAE for vaccination.

The COVAX program delivered four million doses to the entire developing world in early March and promises 16 million doses by the end of 2022. Compare that pace to some wealthier countries, where shots have already gone into the arms of tens of millions. In Israel, 57% of the population have received at least their first vaccine. In the U.K., the number is 37% and nearly 22% in the United States. Among lower income countries, only Chile—which has sourced vaccines from China—is in a comparable position, with a rate of 25%.

Nigeria and the neocolonial poor world, meanwhile, are set to have vaccinated 20% of their population—two years from now!

Poor countries who wish to increase the speed of their pitifully slow vaccine program are left to try to negotiate with big pharma directly. South Africa is asked by AstraZeneca to pay $5.28 per dose, Uganda $7.92 per dose, while the EU negotiated $2.17 per dose.

Recall that the original intention of the developer of the Astra Zeneca vaccine, Oxford University, was to provide doses of the vaccine free of charge or at most at the cost price of 7 pence, or about $0.10 per dose, patent-free.

Oxford was pressured by the Gates Foundation, a major financial donor to its research, to sign an exclusive deal with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. The results have been spectacularly good for AstraZeneca and spectacularly bad for the world’s population.

Shares in AstraZeneca are soaring and its CEO, Pascal Soriot, has seen his personal stock and options increase by $15 million since last April.

Profits are rolling in. In a Feb. 11, 2021, article on the financial news website “This is Money,” it was reported that “Pascal Soriot hails COVID vaccine as profits soar.” The article quoted AstraZeneca as saying that revenues had grown and profits jumped from almost $1.39 billion to nearly $4.17 billion by the end of 2020.

In reality, AstraZeneca’s claims to produce and sell “at cost” are completely false and an attempt to gain a larger market share at the expense of their equally ruthless rivals. As the Financial Times reported in October 2020, the company is able to declare the pandemic “over” by July this year and charge any price it wants.

Not that it has been inhibited from doing so already. The business magazine Fortune has commented on the “almost complete lack of transparency” in AstraZeneca’s pricing policy.

If Oxford’s original intention—to produce the vaccine “open platform” and patent-free—was followed, enabling the vaccine to be produced around the world, one can only imagine how much better off the whole of humanity would be today.

Instead, we have “vaccine nationalism,” a huge vaccination imbalance between former colonial powers and their ex-colonies which mirrors wealth inequalities and the continuing danger to millions of lives—even in the wealthier countries now rolling out mass vaccination.

Allowing the virus to spread and fester in vast reservoirs in the “global South” is an ideal condition for the virus to mutate dangerously even more.

Rather than looking at the real disaster in countries like Nigeria and potential disaster for us all, every country in the world could be approaching the kind of levels of vaccination currently seen in Israel, Britain, and the U.S.

Winnie Byanyima, a UN undersecretary-general, commented on the barrier to being in a much better place: “The current system enables pharmaceutical corporations to use government funding for research…but maintain monopoly on medicines…to boost profits.”

South Africa, supported by the Indian government, recently made a proposal at the WTO for the waiving of property rights for the vaccines until there is global immunity. The United Nations, the World Health Organization, and progressive opinion around the world supports such an approach. When will governments in the wealthy capitalist countries join in?

Clearly, no country can be safe until all countries are safe. To turn a callous blind eye to the spread of the virus in countries that have endured slavery and colonialism and who suffer under neocolonialism and super-exploitation today would be a betrayal of the human race.

Oxfam said recently: “We need open-source vaccines, mass produced…including crucially those in developing countries.” Nick Dearden of Global Justice Now said: “We urgently need technology and patents placed in public hands, so we can share this knowledge, and produce more vaccines now. Our ability to defeat this virus fairly and effectively depends upon it.”

A woman waits to receive one of Nigeria’s first coronavirus vaccinations, using the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and provided through the global COVAX initiative, at Yaba Mainland Hospital in Lagos, March 12, 2021. Urgent calls for COVID-19 vaccine fairness rang through African countries, with officials acutely aware their continent needs much more. | Sunday Alamba / AP

Famously, Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine in the 1950s, refused to patent it. When asked who owned the vaccine, he said: “The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Polio was eliminated.

Contrast Salk’s attitude with that of Pfizer, which is busy leaning on South American governments to put up state resources as “collateral” for supplying the vaccine. Or the Gates Foundation, which was instrumental in pressuring Oxford to “team up” with AstraZeneca. Or AstraZeneca itself.

All the governments should call for vaccine production to be made patent-free worldwide.

We should all join in calling for an end to this disgrace, put humanity before greed and people before profit.

This article originally appeared in Morning Star. This version includes currency conversions for a U.S. audience and updated vaccination rates since time of publication.


John Swinburne
John Swinburne

John Swinburne is the mover of a successful motion at the Educational Institute of Scotland national council meeting of March 5, 2021, calling for the Scottish government to join calls for patent-free coronavirus vaccine production worldwide.