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Greed will deepen vaccine inequity and prolong the Covid-19 pandemic

4 min read

The UK government should remove barriers and back initiatives that would create the space for more manufacturers to enter the market to ensure a sustained supply of vaccines at low prices.

Boris Johnson’s comments earlier this week  that greed and capitalism lie behind the vaccine success were not only factually wrong but incredibly dangerous.  

If we are to avoid ending up back at square one through virus mutations that are immune to the vaccines, then we need unprecedented global co-operation. In public, Johnson is clearly told to say the right things such as ‘no-one is safe until everyone is safe’. But the government, evidently, is not living by this value.  

Only days ago a leaked copy of the text from a World Health Organisation resolution highlighted how the UK is trying to block efforts to strengthen local and regional manufacturing of vaccines in low and middle income countries.  

The UK has apparently communicated that there is an ‘obligation’ for India to provide Britain with more doses, yet we have already bought over 400 million doses so far. That’s potentially enough to vaccinate our population three times over. In comparison only 31 million doses have been delivered across 57 low and middle-income countries to date.   

Greed and capitalism have exacerbated the inequity in the Covid-19 response. In contrast, huge public funding has provided the impetus for the development of the vaccines.  

As we know the AZ vaccine began at Oxford University, which received £65.5 million of public funding. Moderna’s vaccine was largely funded by the National Institute of Health in the US. Billions in public funding has  been poured into developing the vaccines. Yet pharmaceutical companies are set to make ludicrous profits off the back of this. For example, Moderna has seen its share price increase by 372% and expects 2021 sales of $18.4bn and AstraZeneca’s ‘no-profit’ promise could expire as early as July this year.

We need to do all we can to maximise supply and we needed to do it yesterday in order to meet global demand

The ingenuity to bring these vaccines into use didn’t come from big pharmaceutical companies alone. In fact the approach of these companies is often to buy the technology from publicly funded universities or smaller bio-techs once it has been significantly de-risked and then to contract out the majority of the manufacturing.  

And of course it's our NHS - not the private sector - that is doing an amazing job at rolling out vaccines across the country.  

The British government should build on this public role in the development of the vaccine and commit to key Covid-19 tools - tests, therapeutics and vaccines - being considered global public goods.  

This will help ensure the world has a sufficient supply of vaccines. To reach global immunity we need to be vaccinating around 80% of the world’s population. That’s around 12-13 billion doses even before we know whether repeated vaccination will be required.  

High-income countries are vaccinating one person every second while the majority of low-income countries are yet to give a single dose. We need to do all we can to maximise supply and we needed to do it yesterday in order to meet global demand.  

Critically, we need to strengthen the ability of all countries to respond to pandemic threats without being dependent on global supply chains.  There are qualified vaccine producers all over the world standing ready to produce more vaccines, if only they were allowed to access to the technology and know-how now being held under lock and key by pharmaceutical companies through their monopoly control of the patents.  

We must learn the lessons from the HIV response. The pooling of patents meant generic manufacturers could enter the market and make more antiretrovirals at a much lower cost - these generic drugs played a critical role in ensuring treatment access went from 2% in 2000 to 67% in 2021.   

The UK government should back initiatives that would create the space for more manufacturers to enter the market to ensure a sustained supply of vaccines at low prices. This means removing barriers to know-how and stopping the ‘right’ to produce the vaccines being the preserve of a small number of private companies.  

Practically we need the UK government to support the temporary waiver on patents which is on the table at the WTO, initiated by South Africa and India and now co-sponsored by 57 countries. It should back the WHO’s efforts to strengthen local and regional manufacturing of the vaccine.  It should put pressure on industry to share their Intellectual Property and know-how with the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool so we can scale up production, reach global immunity and end this pandemic.  

If we treat the pandemic as an opportunity for more greed and to boost capitalism this will come back to bite us. Public disgust over the Prime Minister’s remarks should be a moment to spur the government into supporting efforts to define Covid-19 tools as a global public good.


Richard Burgon is the Labour MP for Leeds East.

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