Vaccine Apartheid

Jul 2, 2021 | PEWG blog

by Christopher R.

The Covid pandemic is a global crisis that has driven home the importance of vaccination in combating illness. The rapid development of vaccines against Covid is an incredible feat of science, medicine, and cooperation. Decades of research and development have gone into the process, and without that research and prior knowledge it would not have been possible. Now, the struggle is to get everyone vaccinated, with the intention of eliminating the virus and protecting people, especially vulnerable populations, from illness or death.

But there are some big problems: the companies that developed the vaccines want to use intellectual property rights to privately profit off of publicly-funded research. And countries that are hoarding the vaccines end up supporting them.

The World Trade Organization, or WTO, has a provision called Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS. Intellectual property rights are enforced to prevent others from using a proven process for their own manufacturing and distribution. This can prevent a certain method from being used, even if it is only somewhat similar to the one covered by intellectual property protections.

Right now, TRIPS is being used to limit access to research, processes, and materials necessary for vaccine creation, leading to a disparity in vaccine distribution. In some countries, the vaccine is in such abundance that thousands of doses are going to waste. In other places, people are unable to access vaccines at all. This uneven distribution, a kind of vaccine apartheid, is caused by the protection that intellectual property rights offer.  

The Covid virus has many variants already, and new variants will continue to pop up as long as the virus is allowed to spread. It doesn’t matter where the variant starts: it has the potential to spread everywhere. If even one variant appears that is resistant to the vaccine(s), it has the potential to bring the world back to square one.

Under the current arrangement, it is projected that global rollout could take up until 2024. Under this scenario, millions of people will die and new variants might occur that could have been prevented.

The idea that a company or society can use global public resources to develop a globally-necessary product, and then turn around and lay claim to all the rights to it, is the root of the problem here.

The TRIPS waiver would enable more places around the world to cooperate, speeding up further research, manufacturing, and distribution of the vaccine. In October 2020, India and South Africa put forward a TRIPS waiver to the WTO that requested a temporary lifting of TRIPS protections throughout the pandemic. While over 100 countries signed on in support, several countries, mostly the same ones hoarding the vaccines, voted against it. 

The Covid vaccine is a matter of global health and equity and it requires global cooperation, yet certain countries are restricting vaccine access for the sake of profit. Those voting against the waiver are below:

As of May 5, 2021, the US administration changed its position from a “hard no” to being open to discussion on the possibility of a TRIPS waiver. But because the US is only “open to discussion” there is only more delay, debate, and gaslighting as thousands of people die. At a time when the world should be cooperating to put an end to a global crisis, we are divided by the ideological extremity of those who put profit over people. 

The argument put forward by those against the TRIPS waiver is that manufacturing and distribution, not intellectual property, is the problem. They argue that we need to simply ramp up exports of existing vaccines. This argument amounts to offering a solution that consists of allowing those against the waiver to continue to control production so that they can corner a market. In a situation that should be about public health, they are focused on market domination and profits.

Some argue that even if these restrictions were lifted, other places could not be trusted to manufacture them, or that they would not be capable of doing so. Yet vaccines have already been developed and manufactured all over the world, including China, India, the US, Russia, and the UK. 

What this represents is global apartheid between the global north and south, one that is the result of centuries of capitalist eploitation, imperialism, and colonization. The refusal to share intellectual property severely limits cooperation on progress towards fighting the pandemic. It treats a matter of life and death as if it’s a commodity or a luxury to be analyzed for its returns. 

It is a feature, not a bug, of capitalism and the leveraging of power it brings with it. Through the mechanisms of imperialism, capitalism seeks the expansion of power through the extraction of resources and the displacement or conquest of people that rely on those resources. The result is an enforced apartheid where the colonizers, through actions ranging from sanctions to coups,  use force to control the colonized in a one-way relationship where resources and wealth are extracted from the colonized lands and no value is returned to them. 

Whether they use force, collaborators of a local regime, or the local capitalist class to acquire those goals is less important than the end result of resource extraction without mutually beneficial relationships. An apartheid exists where one group of people have control over another group of people and their societies are on unequal and separated footing. In the case of vaccine apartheid, resources are extracted from the colonized, but the vaccines produced from those resources are not sent back in turn. The colonizers require the resources to make the vaccines and are able to extract them with or without the consent of the colonized.

On June 8th 2021, the WTO held another round of debate over the TRIPS waiver. 62 co-sponsoring nations including the African Group, Bolivia, Egypt, Eswatini, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Kenya, the LDC Group, Maldives, Mozambique, Mongolia, Namibia, Pakistan, South Africa, Vanuatu, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe amended the original text with these demands:

The TRIPS Agreement shall be waived in relation to health products and technologies including diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, medical devices, personal protective equipment, their materials or components, and their methods and means of manufacture for the prevention, treatment or containment of COVID-19. This waiver shall be in force for at least 3 years from the date of this decision. The General Council shall, thereafter, review the existence of the exceptional circumstances justifying the waiver, and if such circumstances cease to exist, the General Council shall determine the date of termination of the waiver.The waiver shall not apply to the protection of Performers, Producers of Phonograms (Sound Recordings) and Broadcasting Organizations under Article 14 of the TRIPS Agreement. This decision is without prejudice to the right of least developed country Members under paragraph 1 of Article 66 of the TRIPS Agreement. This waiver shall be reviewed by the General Council not later than one year after it is granted, and thereafter annually until the waiver terminates, in accordance with the provisions of paragraph 4 of Article IX of the WTO Agreement. Members shall not challenge any measures taken in conformity with the provision of the waivers contained in this Decision under subparagraphs 1(b) and 1(c) of Article XXIII of GATT 1994, or through the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Mechanism. 

Contact your local representatives to pressure the Biden administration to support the revised TRIPS waiver. It is our duty as global citizens to push for global vaccine equity.