The vaccine geostrategic war

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By BOAVENTURA DE SOUSA SANTOS*

A geostrategic vaccine war is in place, very poorly disguised by empty appeals to the well-being and health of the world's population

It is now agreed that the current pandemic will stay with us for a long time. We are entering a period of an intermittent pandemic, the precise characteristics of which are yet to be defined. The game between our immune system and virus mutations does not have very clear rules. We will have to live with insecurity, no matter how dramatic the advances in contemporary biomedical sciences are. We know few things with any certainty.

We know that the recurrence of pandemics is related to the dominant development and consumption model, with the climate changes associated with it, with the contamination of the seas and rivers and with the deforestation of forests. We know that the acute phase of this pandemic (possibility of serious contamination) will only end when between 60% and 70% of the world's population is immunized. We know that this task is made more difficult by the worsening of social inequalities within each country and between countries, combined with the fact that the large pharmaceutical industry (Big Pharma) not wanting to give up patent rights on vaccines. Vaccines are now considered the new liquid gold, succeeding the liquid gold of the XNUMXth century, oil.

We know that State policies, political cohesion around the pandemic and citizen behavior are decisive. Greater or lesser success depends on the combination of epidemiological surveillance, reduction of contagion via confinement, effectiveness of hospital support, better public knowledge about the pandemic and attention to special vulnerabilities. Mistakes, negligence and even necrophiliac intentions on the part of some political leaders have resulted in forms of policies of death by sanitary means that we call social Darwinism: the elimination of disposable social groups for being old, for being poor or discriminated against for reasons ethnic-racial or religious.

We know, finally, that the European (and North American) world has shown in this pandemic the same arrogance with which it has treated the non-European world during the last five centuries. As he imagines that the best technical-scientific knowledge comes from the western world, he did not want to learn from the way other countries in the Global South have dealt with epidemics and, specifically, with this virus. Long before the Europeans realized the importance of the mask, the Chinese already considered it to be mandatory. On the other hand, due to a toxic mix of prejudice and pressure on the part of lobbyists at the service of large western pharmaceutical companies, the European Union (EU), the USA and Canada resorted exclusively to vaccines produced by these companies, with consequences that for now are unpredictable.

In addition to all this, we know that a geostrategic vaccine war is installed, very poorly disguised by empty appeals to the well-being and health of the world's population. According to the magazine Nature As of March 30, the world needs eleven billion doses of vaccine (based on two doses per person) to achieve herd immunity globally. By the end of February, orders for 8,6 billion doses had been confirmed, of which six billion were destined for rich countries in the Global North. This means that impoverished countries, which make up 80% of the world's population, will have access to less than a third of the available vaccines. This vaccine injustice it is particularly perverse because, given the global communication that characterizes our time, no one will be truly protected until the whole world is protected. Furthermore, the longer it takes to achieve global herd immunity, the greater the likelihood that virus mutations will become more dangerous to health and more resistant to available vaccines. A recent study, which brought together 77 scientists from various countries around the world, concluded that within a year or less, mutations in the virus will render the first generation of vaccines ineffective. This will be all the more likely the longer it takes to vaccinate the world's population. Now, according to the calculations of People's Vaccine Alliance, at the current rate, only 10% of the population in the poorest countries will be vaccinated by the end of next year. Further delays will translate into a greater proliferation of fake news, the infodemic, as the WHO calls it, which has been particularly destructive in Africa.

It is now agreed that one of the most effective measures will be the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights on vaccine patents for covid by the big pharmaceutical companies. This suspension would make vaccine production more global, faster and cheaper. And that way faster global herd immunity would be achieved. In addition to the health justice that this suspension would allow, there are other good reasons to defend it. On the one hand, patent rights were created to encourage competition in normal times. Pandemic times are exceptional times that, instead of competition and rivalry, call for convergence and solidarity. On the other hand, pharmaceutical companies have already pocketed billions of euros of public money in funding to encourage research and faster development of vaccines. Furthermore, there are precedents for the suspension of patents, not only in the case of retroviral drugs to control HIV/AIDS, but also in the case of penicillin during the Second World War. If we were in a conventional war, certainly the production and distribution of weapons would not be under the control of the private companies that produce them. The state would certainly intervene. This is not a conventional war, but the damage it causes to the lives and well-being of populations could be similar (almost three million dead to date).

No wonder, therefore, that there is now a vast global coalition of non-governmental organizations, States and UN agencies in favor of recognizing health as a public good and not as a business, and the consequent temporary suspension of patent rights. Far beyond vaccines, this global movement focuses on the fight for everyone's access to health, transparency and public control of public funds involved in the production of medicines and vaccines. In turn, around 100 countries, led by India and South Africa, have already asked the World Trade Organization to suspend patent rights relating to vaccines. These countries do not include the countries of the Global North. For this reason, the World Health Organization's initiative to ensure global access to the vaccine (COVAX) is destined to fail.

Let us not forget that, according to data from the Corporate Europe Observatory, Big Pharma spends between 15 and 17 million euros a year to pressure the decisions of the European Union, and that the pharmaceutical industry as a whole has 175 lobbyists in Brussels working with the same purpose. The scandalous lack of transparency in vaccine contracts is the result of this pressure. If Portugal wanted to give distinction and true cosmopolitan solidarity to the current presidency of the Council of the European Union, it would have a good topic to play a leading role here. All the more so as another Portuguese, the UN secretary general, has just made an appeal to consider health as a global public good.

Everything suggests that, in this area as in others, the EU will continue to abdicate any global responsibility. With the pretense of sticking to US global policies, it may in this case be overtaken by the US itself. The Biden administration is considering suspending the patent on technology relevant to vaccines developed in 2016 by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is full professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of The end of the cognitive empire (Authentic).

Originally published on the website Other words.

 

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