Forgetting the dark phase when body bags of the Covid dead were being piled into unmarked graves, the United States today is in a celebratory mood. Through mass vaccination of nearly 200 million, the US has managed to contain the spread of Covid 19.
Despite its laudable success the US has been in the eye of the storm. This is mainly on account of its Big Pharma companies who are resisting sharing vaccine knowhow with the emerging economies and the Global South, which is being devastated by the second Covid wave.
“When people in India and elsewhere desperately need help, we can’t let vaccines sit in a warehouse, we need to get them where they’ll save lives,” Indian-American Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi had pithily said in a tweet.
The shocker in the form of a complete rejection of vaccine justice came from none other than Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates. When asked in an interview with Sky News whether the patent law for Covid 19 vaccines needs to be changed in a bid to augment production, his curt reply, “no”, has horrified the world.
“There's only so many vaccine factories in the world and people are very serious about the safety of vaccines. And so, moving something that had never been done, moving a vaccine, say, from a [Johnson & Johnson] factory into a factory in India, it's novel, it's only because of our grants and expertise that can happen at all,” he said.
Unsurprisingly vaccine protectionism is being brought into sharp focus in the Global South.
“One in five doses being jabbed around the world is made in India. The country is also the largest exporter of Covid-19 vaccines to the rest of the world,” said a Sky News report. But as New Delhi, hit by the shortage of vaccines amid surging Coronavirus cases temporarily banned exports of jabs, inoculation programme in the region as well as for countries which have been dependent on the India-made jabs could be severely hit.
While many countries produce vaccines, not all of them export. India is the biggest exporter of Covid 19 doses, followed by Germany, Russia, the report said.
“If India were to maintain its strict ban, the nation would have enough doses to fully vaccinate its entire adult population by November. But that could lead to supply shortages elsewhere,” the report, based on a research made jointly by Sky News and analytics company Airfinity, said.
It said that 35 countries have mostly relied on India for their jabs. About 98 per cent of people receiving these doses are from low or lower-income countries.
What is making vaccines unavailable globally is also the pricing strategy of doses developed by the rich nations—home to the Big Pharma.
Covid 19 vaccines farmed by Pfizer and Moderna are high priced, and most developing and poorer nations will not be able to afford the jabs, essentially leading to an overdependence of the drugs made in India, Russia and China.
In South Asia, Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh has stood out for her call for vaccine justice the world over.
Recently, at Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), she fervently proposed that all nations must work together to ensure availability of Covid 19 vaccines across the globe. The Bangladeshi leader then added that the vaccines are global public goods and that the United Nations and other international institutions must play an active role to meet the demand of every country.
In a recorded speech the Prime Minister said: "All nations need to work together to make the UN and other international organisations effective so that everyone's requirement of vaccines and medical requirements are met." The Bangladeshi leader is spot on in her advocacy. But she needs more allies for her voice to be globally heard.
Already reeling under the second wave of Covid-19, but also with a tangible capacity to produce vaccines much required for humanity, India is in pole position to become a flag bearer for ending vaccine apartheid being marshalled by Big Pharma.
In partnership with the Global South, the World Health Organisation (WHO), and millions of others who are medically disenfranchised in the developed world, the time has arrived for India along with leaders exemplified by Sheikh Hasina to go global in their campaign to end vaccine Apartheid.
Already, India is a key partner of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), working closely with the WHO. “India is, by volume, the largest supplier of vaccines for the developing world, says Gavi CEO Seth Berkley.
In tune with its domestic and global expectation Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech—the two vaccine manufacturers in the country are planning to start production outside the country to ease supply. Yet, given the enormous scale of the national and international requirements, a real breakthrough can only come once Big Pharma is forced to ease its patents regime, opening the spigot of vaccines for the rest of humanity under a new global vaccine order.