How elites are restricting access to the vaccine

In the autumn of 2019, Labour pledged to put public health before private profit. The new policy, Medicines for the Many, was an ambitious, direct challenge to pharmaceutical companies and a health innovation model that denied nine-year-old Luis Walker, a cystic fibrosis patient, access to a life-saving drug. It called for a radical redesign, not only in the UK, but the world over, of an unjust and inefficient system that serves the interest of private wealth and pits science and innovation against equity and access.

Luis Walker won his fight in the UK, but, a year into a punishing pandemic, the system remains untouched. Worse, rich countries have boosted it, through hoarding treatments and vaccines and using public money to abandon global health to the brutal logic of neoliberal patent systems.

Even as we celebrate the first shots of the COVID-19 vaccines administered in the UK, it is increasingly clear that poorer countries will have to wait years to access the treatment and protect their people. Some rich countries have acquired enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over, while experts suggest  that nine out of ten people in poor countries will not receive a vaccine this year.

This disparity is alarming. For the majority of people in the Global South, the virus and now, it seems, the vaccine, are refracted through legacies of colonialism, public services decimated by IMF-enforced austerity programs, and supply chains embedded in a global economy that replicate imperialism. The United Nations estimates  that nearly half of all jobs in Africa could be lost, while Oxfam calculates that the virus’ economic impact may push  half a billion people into poverty.

This pandemic came to a world already in crisis, compounding climate catastrophe, economic sanctions and border regimes, pharmaceutical greed, and privatised health systems built to serve a tiny elite. Precarious workers and the marginalised suffered most, even as reactionary politicians around the world found new vocabulary to demonise migrants and minorities for the ills of the pandemic.

If indeed the Covid-19 vaccines are to end the pandemic, we know what needs to happen: 60% of the world must be inoculated to achieve herd immunity. Yet we continue to act as though any one country can end the crisis alone by repeatedly thwarting attempts at global solidarity, coordinated action, and ultimately, international justice.

A few weeks after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, the Costa Rican President proposed setting up a Technology Access Pool to facilitate voluntary sharing of health technology, intellectual property, and data. This was inimical to pharma companies’ bottom line and discarded with little fanfare by their ruling protectors.

A few months later, its successor, the COVAX Facility for vaccine distribution – an effort to subsidize vaccines for developing countries – seemed promising. It now contends with a shortfall of US$28 billion.

And now, close to a year in, a handful of the richest countries, including the UK, are opposing a proposal at the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property barriers to aid a swift and just Covid-19 response. Even as the UK began to receive the first doses of the vaccine, it joined the rich bloc in voting against the proposal, dooming large swathes of the world to contend with the pandemic alone. Big pharma’s executives retained their profits.

Until this changes, we will remain in an untenable stasis: There won’t be enough vaccines for the richest, let alone the poor. Bold policy animated by social justice has never been more needed. This pandemic must be an inflection point for us to forge new systems that protect the marginalised and seek international justice, not just parochial interests.

Activists from the Global South must be active participants in shaping a genuine Internationalism in the contemporary world. Unity between progressive movements in the global South and North depends on an exchange of ideas that translates abstract principles into a global movement.

Labour’s 2019 Medicines for the Many  set out to build a model of health innovation that delivers for the economy, for patients, for the NHS, and for health systems around the world. The last Labour manifesto  grounded these questions, of health as well as safety, in a new internationalism that views our security as integrally linked with others’. Detailed plans include:

  • Promoting fairer international patent regimes to allow countries to access essential medicines, increase the transparency of medicines pricing, and ensure that medicines developed with the support of UK taxpayer money are accessible to people in the Global South.
  • Setting up a publicly-owned company that will make cheap generic versions of medicines deemed prohibitively expensive, including a review of patents and compulsory licensing options in order to encourage generic production.
  • A commitment to critically engage with international institutions like the World Bank, IMF and WTO to transform the rules of the global economy so they work for the many not the few.
  • Resetting our relationships with countries in the Global South based on principles of redistribution and equality, including specific commitments for the aid budget and technological transfer as part of a Green New Deal.

Over the coming year, the Peace and Justice Project will work with the organisations and movements already fighting for vaccine justice to campaign for a Covid-19 vaccine available to all, and affordable everywhere. This will include:

  • Looking at how the Covid-19 vaccine and, indeed, subsequent vaccines can be global public goods, produced by an intergovernmental, globally cooperative approach, with conditions attached to public funding, and produced at scale at an affordable cost.
  • Considering the crucial role the UK can play at international institutions to fight vaccine nationalism, endorse the WHO Covid Technology Access Pool to maximise the supply of vaccines, through the sharing of information, data, biological material, and know-how so that new vaccine manufacturers can enter the field.
  • Demanding a system of transparency and accountability in all international trade deals, while committing a proportion of our budget for vaccine allocation to low and middle-income countries.

A new internationalism in response to the pandemic could usher in a world where solidarity is the norm. That states have enacted fiscal and monetary policies once considered politically impossible shows that a new world could be within reach. The old most certainly is dying, but we need a new commitment to international justice if the new is to be born.