Vaccine inequality is government policy. It’s up to Labour to challenge it

Nick Dearden
© Twitter/@Keir_Starmer

This week, we found out that Pfizer is jacking up its coronavirus vaccine prices for the NHS. It’s just the latest in a series of shameless acts of profiteering from big pharmaceutical companies during the pandemic. We all depend on vaccines and other lifesaving medicines, but the conduct of the companies responsible all too often drives the very problems they are supposed to eradicate.

We have seen remarkable scientists in the UK and around the world develop Covid-19 vaccines in record time. There has been an unprecedented effort from British workers to manufacture AstraZeneca’s jab on scale at cost-price. However, they have been let down by industry executives who care more about expanding their markets than vaccinating the world.

For more than a year, every major pharmaceutical company has boycotted the World Health Organisation’s ‘patent pool’ for coronavirus vaccines. The Covid-19 Technology Access Pool was set up to share the technology, knowhow and patents to allow low and middle income countries to produce their own jabs. It would replace the secrecy and competition that currently characterises the pharmaceutical industry with openness and collaboration.

But even AstraZeneca’s “vaccine for the world” – which was 97% publicly funded – has been kept firmly out of the reach of most people, despite factories around the world crying out to produce vaccines, if only Britain would share the knowledge and rights.

Pharmaceutical giants have sold 80% of their vaccines to high and upper-middle income countries, who make up less than half of the world’s population. Covax, the multilateral effort to buy vaccines for and donate vaccines to poorer countries, has faced repeated setbacks. But, even if it were fully funded and able to deliver on schedule, it would only deliver vaccines for 30% of participating countries’ populations – not enough to end the pandemic.

Now, we are seeing Pfizer raise the price of their vaccine from £18 a dose to £22, 11 times the cost of the AstraZeneca jab. Pfizer already expects its jab to bring in $33bn this year, with forecasts that it will reach $50bn next and profits in the “high 20% range”. This is unprecedented revenue from a single medicine in a  single year. And, although masses of public funding have made this jab possible, the NHS will now have to pay £1bn for its 35-million dose order.

There remain billions of unvaccinated people around the world in health systems that can ill-afford vaccines at any price, let alone at this grossly inflated one. While many rich countries will have vaccinated everyone who wants a jab by the end of 2021, low income countries will take 57 years to be in the same place at current rates.

This grotesque inequality is enabled by a Tory government that has ignored the pleas of developing nations to waive patents on coronavirus vaccines, which are a major blockage in global vaccine manufacturing. Almost a year has passed since India and South Africa first proposed a loosening of intellectual property rules on vaccines. Despite a landmark decision from the Biden administration in May to support the waiver, negotiations have once again stalled because the British and German governments are standing in the way.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s government has taken a sharp-elbows approach to vaccines, circumventing Covax and cutting bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies. There is no denying that the UK’s vaccination programme has been remarkable. But the government has ordered doses far in excess of what we need.

Even with the newly expanded vaccine rollout, we’ll have 210 million leftover jabs this year, enough to provide a first dose for the ten least vaccinated countries on earth. But we’re only giving 30 million of them away – many with just weeks left until they expire.

The World Health Organisation has called for a moratorium on the kind of third-dose “booster” programmes that the UK is pursuing. In a plea to rich country governments, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, said: “We cannot and should not accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it while the world’s most vulnerable people remain unprotected”.

It’s not just wrong, but also unbelievably short-sighted, given that the very mutations that could render our own vaccines ineffective are far more likely to emerge and spread in the most unvaccinated populations. But has Boris Johnson listened? Not a chance.

Labour has spoken out about the government’s reinforcement of global vaccine inequality, calling for a radically different approach to global vaccination efforts. But, better still, the party already has a far-reaching policy to fix our broken pharmaceutical system that has led to the rampant vaccine inequality that is prolonging this pandemic.

At Labour’s 2019 conference, the last before the pandemic, the party committed to the most comprehensive plan to reform our healthcare system since the establishment of the NHS in 1948: Medicines for the Many. Working closely with access to medicines campaigners, Labour devised a blueprint to drive down drug prices, encourage innovation and reshape the global health agenda to tackle, not perpetuate, global health inequalities. It would represent the most significant challenge to the power of our highly financialised, big business-dominated pharma system in decades.

Keir Starmer will surely want to use his first conference as Labour leader to set out his vision for the future beyond coronavirus. But, if the last year has taught us anything, it is that global health policy has a profound impact on our lives – and the idea that big pharmaceutical companies might solve health problems fairly and equitably is demonstrably false.

A restatement of Labour’s far-reaching policy would be popular in the country, where waiving patents scores highly in opinion polls. It would also point the way to the sort of global economic changes we so desperately need. After all, the monopoly powers that our trade system hands to big business aren’t just a problem for producing medicines, but for reining in the power of Big Tech, for regaining control over our food system and for dealing with climate change.

The UK is one of the last dominos to fall before we can finally waive intellectual property on Covid-19 vaccines and Labour should hold the government’s feet to the fire. We deserve better than a system that has put multi-billion pound profits ahead of controlling the Covid-19 pandemic – and it’s up to Labour to demand it.

Global Justice Now and STOPAIDS are hosting a People’s Vaccine fringe at Labour conference, 6-7.30pm on Monday 27th September in the Walrus ballroom, with speakers including Shami Chakrabarti. Global Justice Now and National Nurses United are hosting a People’s Vaccine Rally at The World Transformed at 7pm on Saturday 25th September.

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