Alongside the quickly accelerating vaccine roll-out and easing of restrictions in countries across much of the Global North, a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths has intensified in the Global South.
All countries must have equal access to vaccines to fight COVID-19 and stop the spread and development of new variants. But wealthy nations are hoarding vaccines and limiting the access of low-income countries.
Wealthy countries were able to secure doses even before the pharmaceutical companies had finalised clinical trials, and have ordered surplus vaccines for their populations.
Kenyan prime minister Uhuru Kenyatta condemned vaccine nationalism at a global education forum held in London in late July, saying that Kenya and other East African countries will need to produce their own vaccines due to hoarding by the West. Kenyatta wants intellectual property rights waived so that Kenya can begin this process.
As of September 9, only 1.5% of Kenya’s population was fully vaccinated. According to the United Nations, only 3% of the entire African continent is vaccinated. By contrast, 70% of the adult population in the European Union has been fully vaccinated.
Although some African countries like Kenya can afford to import vaccines, they are forced to pay much more for them than countries of the Global North that have monopolised production and reserved future supplies.
How can vaccine inequality be addressed?
The Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) must be waived so that countries in the Global South can produce vaccines. Vaccine manufacturing facilities should be set up and equipped with the necessary technologies, training and expertise.
As Leigh Phillips argues in a recent Jacobin article, the spread of COVID-19 and its variants can only be mitigated with an end to the global vaccine apartheid. The Global North must massively scale up global vaccine distribution, as well as medical equipment, material and infrastructure support.
States should direct the production and distribution of vaccines based on the epidemiological principles of disease control, instead of what Phillips describes as the “amoral profit-driven anarchy of the market”.
The Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET) reports that, under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, a few pharmaceutical companies have “20-year monopoly patents on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments”, and each government must negotiate with them on prices and quantities. As a result, pharmaceutical corporations are making huge profits.
The People’s Vaccine Alliance points out that COVID vaccines created nine new billionaires with “combined wealth greater than the cost of vaccinating the world’s poorest countries”. Pharmaceutical giant Moderna, for example, has charged countries between four and 13 times the estimated production cost and averages a profit margin of 50% per dose.
To tackle vaccine inequality in the Asia-Pacific, Australia must produce and deliver more COVID-19 vaccines and supplies to its neighbours.
Australia has so far supplied 575,000 AstraZeneca doses to Timor-Leste, 861,000 doses to Fiji, and is committed to sending 2.5 million doses to Indonesia this year. It will also send 1000 ventilators, 700 oxygen cylinders, 170 cylinders and 20,000 rapid antigen testing kits.
However. the federal government could do more. Australia was one of the last countries to hold out on corporate patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines and its refusal — until September 8 — to express support for the TRIPS waiver shows it is not really interested in international solidarity.
South Africa and India proposed the temporary waiver on intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines to the WTO in October 2020. For this proposal to come into effect, all countries that sit on the WTO must unanimously agree.
By August, more than 100 countries had signed onto the campaign. However Britain, the United States, Australia and the European Union initially opposed the waiver.
Pressure to end patents on COVID-19 vaccines was waged by groups like the People’s Vaccine Alliance, Oxfam and Amnesty International. In Australia, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Australian Council for International Development, Oxfam and the Public Health Association of Australia and other advocacy groups put sustained pressure on the federal government to support the waiver.
In the US, President Joe Biden’s administration did an about-face in May, announcing it would waive intellectual property rights on COVID vaccines.
The next WTO TRIPS council meeting on September 14 will be a crucial one and campaign groups are wary of a watered-down waiver proposal.
The fight for countries of the Global South to be able to produce and access COVID-19 vaccines is a matter of life and death. Pharmaceutical giants and rich nations' refusal to grant poorer nations a waiver on COVID-19 vaccine production is criminal.
Unions, health organisations and everyone wanting a world safe from COVID-19 need to join the growing people’s movement demanding vaccines for all, not just the rich.