World Trade Organization opts for greed over global vaccinations

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UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima had appealed to the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva, saying the world would face a bleak future if patent waivers did not take place. In a press conference, Byanyima said, “In a pandemic, sharing technology is life or death, and we choose death.” At the 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which took place from June 12 to 17, this is precisely what the rich countries did. They have blocked almost every opportunity to provide cheap vaccines, antiviral drugs and diagnostics to the world. After two years of WTO ‘delay’ or blockage on the India-South Africa proposal for a patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines and drugs, the club of rich countries – the European Union , the United States and the United Kingdom – ensured that no valid patent waiver measures were adopted. Big Pharma’s profits have once again eclipsed people’s lives and health. This is also what happened during the AIDS epidemic.

The so-called “concessions” agreed at the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) simplify some of the cumbersome procedures agreed under the Doha Declaration for compulsory licensing of medicines. But that makes it much more difficult for countries like India and China, which have considerable manufacturing capacity, to supply vaccines under such compulsory licenses. So yes, countries that want vaccines can issue compulsory licenses more easily, but to whom, if not countries that have manufacturing capacity?

In vaccine manufacturing, it is not the vaccine formula that matters. Unlike many drugs, which are small molecule drugs and therefore easy to patent, vaccines are large molecules and belong to the group of drugs called biologics. The key to manufacturing biologics is not the formula of the compound, but rather its manufacture on an industrial scale and ensuring the production process to accurately replicate large, complex molecules. This know-how is not protected by patents but by trade secrets. It is possible to duplicate these trade secrets or secure them by entrusting the work to someone who knows the process. But it exposes companies that try to do so to costly legal action, including at the WTO. And there is also the threat of unilateral sanctions by the US, EU and UK.

The upshot is that Pfizer and other big pharma will continue to make huge profits at the expense of people’s lives, even as it leads to the emergence of new variants of SARS-CoV-2 and causes continued disease. pandemic. Less than 20% of Africans, who number about 700 million, have been fully immunized, while millions of vaccine doses go unused and wasted in the United States. We have the capacity to produce vaccines to immunize the entire population of the world, thereby saving countless lives and reducing the possibility of the emergence of dangerous new variants. But this is not in the interest of Big Pharma, for which profits count far more than human lives.

To put it into perspective, Pfizer’s earnings roughly doubled in 2021 compared to 2020, with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine contributing a significant portion of those earnings. If Pfizer were a country, its revenue of $81 billion last year would have put it ahead of the GDP of countries like Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya, according to an analysis of World Bank data by the organization. Global Justice Now. In addition to vaccines, the monopoly on diagnostics and antiviral drugs is also driving up costs for people constantly battling the virus, while generating windfall profits for Big Pharma.

The only waiver in MC12 was for compulsory licensing for vaccines. He did not address patents on diagnostics and antiviral drugs. He also did not address the other issue that had been raised, namely that the WTO includes in its waiver other intellectual property rights such as trade secrets, which are essential for the mass production of vaccines. .

MC12 kicked the ball six months later by taking a decision on removing patents for diagnostics and antiviral drugs, with very little chance that rich countries would suddenly change their minds on these issues, given their continued position on these issues. questions during the pandemic that has already killed millions.

Why is it important to vaccinate the world’s population? Simply put, the more people SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) infects, the more likely new variants will emerge. Some people mistakenly believe that the more the virus mutates, the more likely it is to become benign. This was once a common opinion among part of the medical community. However, today evolutionary biologists argue that there is no evidence that viruses mutate to become more benign. And even if this is believed to be true in the long run, as John Maynard Keynes, the economist, said, “in the long run, we’re all dead.”

The longer we live with a pandemic that continues to infect around half a million to a million people every day, the more we consider the possibility of a new variant emerging that may be as transmissible as omicron and may also cause larger deaths. that we have seen before. The transmissibility of the virus is greatest when the infected patient has only mild symptoms, is physically and socially mobile, and can therefore infect others. This is the window in which the virus spreads. Whether the patient subsequently recovers or dies has little impact on the replication of the disease in other people the patient might have infected. It may impact our social behavior, but it has little to do with the virus becoming milder over time.

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Over time, people tend to build more immunity against the virus, but that is what then determines the future evolutionary path of the virus. If delta showed higher transmissibility, then omicron has much higher immune evasion. This means that omicron can bypass our immunity derived from previous infections or vaccines. Of course, if the evolution of the virus causes the patient to be so sick from the start that they can’t move at all, that will stop or reduce the transmission of the virus. But that is not how the SARS-CoV-2 virus behaves.

How is SARS-CoV-2 likely to evolve over the next few years? As immunologists tell us, the evolutionary trajectory of the virus depends on the complex interplay of a number of factors that shape our immune system’s response to the evolution of the virus.

Waiting for the virus to become milder or mythical herd immunity cannot be an answer to the current pandemic. Vaccines are essential to any public health response to the pandemic as countries around the world struggle to reduce the number of new infections and therefore the roots of new transmissions. And yes, for the foreseeable future, we will have to live with repeating our vaccine booster doses as we tweak vaccines to newer variants.

While patents on antiviral drugs as a cure for COVID-19 are important, and they will certainly help reduce deaths and complications from long COVID, again patents are hindering their use. Antiviral drugs are only effective within a small window of the first few days of illness, which means they need to be made available to people cheaply so they can buy them from pharmacies. The high cost and patent control of these drugs do not provide a large enough market. A small market and high prices lead to a no-win situation: prices are high because the market is small; the market is small because the prices are high.

Again, open licensing of antiviral drugs could create a large market for them. But that is what the WTO does not allow. The compulsory licensing route under the WTO is cumbersome, and its relaxation in MC12 means that countries like India, which have played a crucial role in the fight against the AIDS epidemic, are expected to withdraw as suppliers. They then cannot become suppliers of antivirals for COVID-19 as they had been for antiviral drugs for AIDS.

Why don’t the countries that have the capacity to manufacture advanced vaccines – India, China, Russia and South Africa – come together to offer the technology and supplies to the rest of the world? Why don’t countries collaborate with Cuba, a biological powerhouse, to produce vaccines locally? Cuba has developed five such vaccines, two of which are already being produced on a large scale.

The answer lies in the “rules-based international order” propagated by the rich club. The rules include sanctions against many countries, including Russia, Cuba and China. For those not yet under sanctions, there is the threat of future sanctions by the US, the EU and the UK – the gang of three who have teamed up with the WTO to frustrate the India-South Africa patent waiver initiative. The United States also has its national legislation, the US Trade Act, Section 301, to “protect” its intellectual property under which it threatens countries with US sanctions. India and China feature prominently each year on the list of countries whose laws and actions do not conform to US national laws. If the United States and its allies don’t win at the WTO, then they use their “rules-based order” where they can make the rules.

Welcome to our brave new world, where, to paraphrase Winnie Byanyima, death triumphs over life.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

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