One year after March 11, 2020, the day on which the World Health Organization WHO defined the spread of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, we are still grappling with new waves, heavy restrictions, and a number of deaths reaching over 550,000 only in Europe.
The substantial public resources that have financed the research of private pharmaceutical companies have seemingly “worked”. As of today, there are more vaccines that have completed the control phases and a large part of the scientific community is convinced that the vaccines are the most suitable tool for overcoming the pandemic, along with, as we always highlight, the necessary strengthening of the public health system and the community-based medicine.
So what are the governments waiting for? Why hasn’t there been extensive public vaccination campaigns to get us out of this pandemic? Why have we instead to witness daily battles between states over the few doses of vaccine available?
A question of political will
The main cause of this paradoxical situation, apart from the inability of our governments to manage the pandemic, is the shortage of vaccines. The global demand for vaccines exceeds by far the supply. But why? There are few private companies that can produce them and they do not have the capacity to guarantee enough doses for everyone. Multinational pharmaceutical companies are operating in a quasi-monopoly condition thanks to the protection of intellectual property rights, in particular patents, guaranteed by the agreements known as TRIPs (Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights).
These agreements, which were implemented in 1995 (date of the creation of the World Trade Organization, WTO), are an example of how formally equal rules for all in fact reproduce deep inequalities due to the gap between rich and poor countries in terms of technological capacity and access to knowledge – a gap that has its roots in historical colonial and neo-colonial relations. These trade agreements artificially limit production capacity, leading to product shortages, price increases and an inordinate concentration of power in the hands of private pharmaceutical companies. Those companies have the power to decide who can be vaccinated and when. This is unacceptable under any circumstances, but even more in the context of a global pandemic that has already claimed over 2.5 million lives worldwide.
At an international level, there are many organizations and states claiming the urgency of eliminating patents to increase vaccine production. March 10 and 11 is also the date on which the TRIPs Council under the WTO will meet. Since October 2, 2020, India and South Africa have been making a request to temporarily suspend intellectual property rights in order to make vaccines and new technologies for treatment accessible to all – a mechanism provided for in these agreements in emergency situations. Today, this request is promoted by 57 states and has received the assent of another 60 countries. In essence, there are more than 110 countries that would like to suspend – albeit temporarily – intellectual property rights in order to globally expand and diversify the production of vaccines and by doing so prevent, treat and contain COVID-19. On the other hand, a handful of countries including the European Union, the US, Great Britain and Canada are opposing this option.
No profit on pandemic!
Suspending patents is not only morally urgent, it is essential for our own future. The global nature of the pandemic and the development of new variants have amply demonstrated that no one is safe until all countries have overcome the pandemic. Risking the emergence of a vaccine-resistant variant could undo all the health, social and economic efforts made so far.
We cannot wait one day longer. We have chosen March 11, a symbolic date, as a day of mobilization to state clearly and unequivocally that our lives and the future of the global community cannot be endangered by trade agreements made in the interests of private companies and a few nation states. That is why numerous European organizations and political parties are supporting the #noprofitonpandemic campaign based on the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). This campaign is based on 4 fundamental demands: First, the right to health for all; second, transparency on everything related to our health; third, that vaccines and health technologies developed with public investment must not be privatized; and fourth, to prevent big pharmaceutical companies from accumulating profits and plundering social welfare systems during the pandemic.
Another health care system is possible!
Instead of being subordinated to the profit motive of private companies, we should work towards the creation of public companies for the development, production and distribution of drugs, vaccines and medical devices. Although at first glance this may seem like too big of an investment, in reality a huge amount of the European healthcare expenditure is swallowed up by the pharmaceutical and medical device industries selling their products to the public health care system at very high prices. Such high costs block the possibility to guarantee health care access for all and undermine the right to health treatment.
There are alternatives to big pharma companies and market logic. A striking example is Cuba, which despite the embargo and economic difficulties, with its strong public pharmaceutical industry has developed cutting-edge technologies that made it possible to develop the Soberana vaccine, currently in its final trial phase, a few months after the international giants. This success stems from a simple principle that is all too often ignored in our society: health is a fundamental human right and can not be seen as a field for speculation and profit.
Today, more than ever before, it’s this logic of life that we must absolutely make prevail over the logic of profit. Starting on March 11, for vaccines, for health, for equality. For the lives of our peoples.