The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What’s behind global covid inequalities? Corporate greed.

A nurse prepares to administer a dose of the AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine in Kenya. (Ben Curtis/AP)
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Luke Savage is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine.

During the earliest months of the pandemic, it was customary for world leaders to invoke the spirit of wartime solidarity. The sentiment was, in principle, the right one — not only because a global crisis demands coordination on a massive scale but also because of the direct precedent found in how governments approached public health during the bleakest days of the 1940s.

Through its War Production Board, the United States cast aside restrictions surrounding intellectual property rights and, officials and researchers worked tirelessly to share information. Guided by a singular objective to maximize the production of lifesaving drugs and medicines, the WPB compelled pharmaceutical companies to share their recipes — notably forcing Pfizer to give up a special fermentation method for making penicillin, a move that yielded a more than tenfold increase in its production over the following two years.

Yet, beyond the level of rhetoric, this wartime spirit and the kind of dynamic public effort it once implied have been woefully absent from the global response to covid-19 — a response that has seen a handful of pharmaceutical giants, abetted by powerful governments, take the lead in vaccine production and mask narrow self-interest with boilerplate corporate arguments about the sanctity of intellectual property.

As the new omicron variant starts to appear in North America, it’s clear how badly this approach has failed. Vaccines have overwhelmingly been distributed to wealthy countries, and a mere 7.1 percent of people in low-income nations have received at least one dose. If the status quo is allowed to persist, production will continue to lag far behind demand, increasing the likelihood of future variants and leaving, at minimum, hundreds of millions unvaccinated while people in the affluent West receive their booster shots.

This state of affairs benefits no one, aside from a handful of drug companies. As new variants emerge and cases continue to proliferate throughout the developing world, even citizens in rich countries with comparatively high vaccination rates can look forward to another year characterized by restrictions and disruptions in daily life. Well before anyone had ever heard of the omicron variant, 2021 had already represented a boom time for the likes of Pfizer and Moderna. After news of omicron broke late last month, the latter saw its market capitalization increase by a staggering $40 billion in a matter of days amid anticipation of renewed demand for booster shots.

In recent history, at least, it’s hard to think of a starker example of private interest trumping the public good. A prolonged crisis may be bad for global health, but it’s certainly good business, the status quo guaranteeing huge profits and allowing pharmaceutical companies to charge as much as 24 times the potential production costs for mRNA vaccines whose development would have been impossible without both publicly funded research and generous taxpayer support.

In describing the current situation, some have invoked phrases like “vaccine nationalism” and “vaccine apartheid.” Though in many ways accurate, another name might be “vaccine corporatism”: a few pharmaceutical giants profiting from a global health crisis while hoarding the technical knowledge and expertise required to expedite its end to bolster their own bottom lines.

It’s a bleak and avoidable state of affairs — but one that could be rectified if the United States takes necessary action. While the Biden administration recently won itself a positive news cycle by renewing its calls for a waiver of intellectual property protections in response to the omicron variant, a recent investigation by In These Times revealed that U.S. officials were still dragging their feet at a recent meeting of the World Trade Organization — a clear case of encouraging words not being met with commensurate action. Moreover, according to an August report from Public Citizen, the administration is, in fact, already in possession of Moderna’s vaccine formula and could simply opt to share it.

Abandoning the ossified consensus around intellectual property rights is long overdue. Simply put, there is no foreseeable exit from the coronavirus without a massive increase in the production and distribution of vaccines. Such an increase depends, in the words of World War II-era penicillin czar Albert Elder, on the “efficient harnessing of the ‘know-how’ recently developed” — in a word, on the sharing of vaccine recipes and consequent use of production capacity that is currently untapped.

Assembling a more effective and humane global response to the pandemic begins with upending the current model of vaccine production. But it should ultimately encourage a deeper reexamination of prevailing assumptions about the wisdom of market-led solutions to global problems — and a wider recognition that there is no just solution to a global health crisis that puts profits ahead of people.

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