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The UK pursued vaccine nationalism – now it’s paying the price

Credit: Marco Verch/Flickr (CC 2.0 license.)

For months, the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout looked seamless. While the EU struggled with supplies, and most low and middle-income countries have yet to vaccinate a single person, more than 25 million Britons have received their first dose. At least for us, the UK’s ‘go it alone’ approach seemed to many to have worked – until this week.

Now, vaccine nationalism has finally hit home, leaving millions of under-50s waiting longer for their jabs. But this crisis is a direct result or our own government’s choices.

Five million doses from India’s Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, have been held up following a spike in cases in the country. The producer claims it’s at the orders of the Indian government. And, if true, India is doing exactly what the UK has done to the rest of the world.

Facing its own floundering rollout, the EU is threatening to block vaccine exports to the UK. Less noticed, however, was European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s vow to use ‘whatever tools’ are needed to vaccinate the EU’s population, including suspending intellectual property.

It was a startling about-turn from the European block that had, until now, been a fierce defender of intellectual property for vaccines. But it’s something that Global South countries have long been demanding – while the EU, UK, and US have blocked the proposal.

Early in the pandemic, it seemed clear there was no national way out of a global pandemic – and a new age of multilateralism would be needed to see off this disease.

In May 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched its Covid-19 technology access pool (C-TAP), a programme for countries and pharmaceutical companies to share innovations and know-how to treat and tackle coronavirus.

But the pharmaceutical industry, not known to shy from profiteering during a health crisis, quickly closed ranks to condemn the scheme, with the Pfizer boss deriding the initiative as ‘nonsense’. Not a single pharma company with a successful Covid-19 vaccine has signed up to C-TAP since.

Even AstraZeneca – who promised not to charge profit-prices for their jabs, developed with UK public funds – rejected the scheme.

This means that vaccines can only be produced within each pharma company’s supply chain. In short, we are using a fraction of the world’s potential vaccine production capacity – all to ensure pharma giants can guard their patents and profits.

Meanwhile, Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care cut bilateral deals with pharma companies to secure millions more doses than the UK needs, placing Britain firmly at the front of the queue.

While rich countries have bought up enough jabs to vaccinate their populations three times over by the end of the year, the world’s poorest nations will wait until at least 2023 to vaccinate enough of their populations to achieve herd immunity – and countless will needlessly die.

With pharma giants refusing to co-operate with the WHO and rich countries snapping up the world’s supply of vaccines, low and middle income countries have started challenging the trade rules which are keeping doses from their populations.

More than 100 developing nations, led by India and South Africa, proposed a waiver to a World Trade Organisation agreement protecting medical patents, which would allow them to develop generic versions of vaccines and treatments. But the UK, EU, and the US – beholden to the pharma giants – have repeatedly blocked the move.

Limiting global production has predictably created a bottleneck, which has meant low and middle income countries must wait years for vaccines. Factories across the world that could be producing desperately needed jabs are lying idle, precisely because Big Pharma refuses to share know-how which was developed with substantial public investment. But it’s only now that this is impacting our own rollout.

In the ever-escalating bust-up, the EU is now threatening to do exactly what it has prevented low and middle income countries from doing – suspending intellectual property to make its own vaccines.

While their motives are far from altruistic, it’s a sensible solution to the madness of vaccine nationalism. And with the UK facing its own shortage, our government should follow suit.

The tides are changing internationally. The US, having unshackled itself from Trump, might be more amenable to this approach – indeed, Bernie Sanders has called on the Biden administration to support the move. And Biden has already used wartime powers to ramp up manufacturing, though has stopped short of challenging Big Pharma, for now.

But this can’t be another case of multilateralism among rich countries while the rest of the world suffers. If we are to ensure everyone, everywhere gets vaccinated as soon as possible, we need to suspend vaccine patents globally and bring an end to destructive vaccine nationalism.

For more on the global politics of vaccines, keep a look out for New Internationalist’s Big Story on the topic, to be published in our May-June 2021 edition.


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