As the summit between the African Union and European Union (EU-AU summit) came to a close on February 18, the EU’s dedication to ensuring equitable access to Covid-19 products remained murky. While Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, stated that the two unions had a very constructive discussion on the TRIPS waiver, the meeting resulted in little more than a tepid statement and a new deadline for reaching an agreement on intellectual property rights during the pandemic. Von der Leyen also stated, “We share the same goal. We have different ways to reach that goal.”
In reality, it would seem the AU and the EU have very different goals. While delegates from different African countries made a point of supporting a suspension of intellectual property rights on key Covid-19 products, EU politicians continue to focus their energies on postponing the TRIPS waiver as much as possible and protecting the profits of pharmaceutical companies based in the Global North.
On the eve of the EU-AU summit, the issue of vaccine apartheid and the EU’s role in it has once again come into the limelight thanks to public health movements’ renewed push for it. Activists have launched campaigns to pressurize France, which is now holding the presidency of the European Council, and Germany, the biggest economy in the region, to do more than merely talk about partnerships.
Activists have pointed out that due to the reluctance of the governments in the EU to push the vaccine producers to share their technology and resources along with know-how with the poorer countries, and due to their sole focus on making profits, millions of people in Africa and elsewhere are facing imminent threats to their lives. This, in turn, is also causing dangers to people in the rest of the world due to new variants such as Omicron. The rich countries need to understand that the gap between them and the poorer nations in vaccine coverage will ultimately defeat the whole purpose.
A petition to Emmanuel Macron, signed by almost a hundred health activists from across the world, underlined the humongous gaps in vaccine delivery between poor and rich countries even after almost two years of global initiatives such as COVAX. According to Doctors without Borders, in comparison to on an average 7.1 doses per 100 people in poor countries, rich countries got 155 doses per 100 people by the end of the year 2021.
The petition also pointed out that the COVAX initiative, promoted by the EU and vaccine manufacturers as an alternative to lifting patents and allowing everyone to produce the vaccines as demanded by India and South Africa in 2020 itself, has failed to deliver on its mandate. It has failed to fulfill the promises of 1.8 billion doses by the year 2021 and has been able only to deliver around half of its total promise. A substantial part of the delivered doses have had a very short expiry date making them unusable.
The fact is even after two years, the majority of poor countries and particularly the countries in Africa have been unable to get enough vaccines for their people, leaving the continent with just 12% of its total 1.3 billion population fully vaccinated. The average rate of vaccination in the EU is over 71%. This gives credence to the allegation of EU practicing a “vaccine apartheid” as claimed by Cyril Ramaphosa, president of South Africa last year.
To address the gap between the rich and poor countries in vaccination, public health movements are reiterating their demands for a patent waiver on vaccine production which will end “the production monopoly, conferred for 20 years by patents” which is “the main cause of excessively high prices and the shortage of vaccines and treatments” in the poorer nations. They question the arguments of discouragement of innovation when the knowledge for vaccines were “obtained thanks to gigantic public investment.”
There is no justification for these patents as they are facilitating earning of a whopping USD 1,000 per second profit for the shareholders of the companies producing vaccines at the time when nearly 10,000 people are dying every day due to lack of vaccines and proper treatments.
The European Parliament has thrice approved the demand for lifting patents and even the World Health Organization recommends it. However, the EU leadership is reluctant to do so primarily because they do not want to hamper the profits made by their corporations. Instead, the EU is talking about donations and sharing of doses with poorer nations and primarily with Africa.
The EU claims to have donated a total of 145 million doses to Africa and has pledged 1 billion Euros to increase the vaccine production capacity on the continent. It is also promising to share at least 450 million doses with the continent until summer apart from promising voluntary licensing which means if the vaccine manufacturer agrees to share the know-how of making the vaccine.
Von der Leyen has claimed that she has committed 125 million Euros more to help African countries to train medical staff to administer doses. This was in addition to 300 million Euros already committed by the EU.
The EU meanwhile has blamed the African countries for their failure to absorb vaccines claiming that supply is no more an issue. In a nutshell, it will do anything but share the know-how and resources of vaccine production.
Both France and the new government in Germany have refused to entertain the idea of patent relief despite, at least in the case of the new economy minister from the German Green Party Robert Habeck talking about it before coming to power. They are now talking about other measures to address the vaccine gap which activists have claimed will not have much impact.
Instead BioNTech, who delivered one of the first vaccine doses and one of the largest companies in Germany has announced the establishment of a factory to produce vaccines in Africa by the middle of the year. It will further cause delay and the African countries would have to pay the arbitrary prices fixed by the company for each dose.
Expressing her disappointment over Habeck going back on his long-term commitment, Christiane Fischer, from People’s Health Movement (PHM) Germany, said they will keep on pressuring the government to work for the patent removal which remains the focal point of their work.
The activists have claimed that it will only require USD 9.4 billion to produce 8 billion doses to fulfill the gap between the rich and poor countries and end the vaccine apartheid and to reduce the possibilities of newer variants such as Omicron. This is nothing in comparison to USD 30 billion paid to vaccine manufacturers. But the EU leadership refuses to see the simple math. It seems they have decided to remain loyal to their corporate bosses rather than to the people whom they claim to care about.