Pfizer has only one, yes ONE, factory to produce all vaccines for all countries outside of the United States. And on Friday, it announced that it would have to delay promised deliveries for ‘a few weeks’ while it is upgrading this factory in Belgium. Instead of standing up to Big Pharma, EU countries have shown no more than resignation hidden by some grumbling. Except for some isolated voices, no one has dared suggest that countries use an existing legal mechanism: compulsory licensing. That would mean that anyone could start producing the vaccine. And it’s legal.
Indeed, the 1995 TRIPS Agreement (Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) negotiated by the World Trade Organisation includes Article 31, which states that countries „may use of the subject matter of a patent without the authorization of the right holder“ if their legislation allows for exceptions. And according to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), 156 countries currently allow such exceptions, including all EU countries. So what are we waiting for?
While this law is different in each country, it usually gives the right to the state to use compulsory licensing in cases of health emergency and/or when the producer is unable to deliver. Hard not to think about the current situation, right? It is obvious that Big Pharma makes more money by producing itself, distributing itself, setting its own prices, but it is now failing to meet demands and its greed needs to be stopped. All we need is to apply the law, make the vaccine license open to all, let all producers use their capacities to produce it.
Public authorities not only have the duty, but also the right to do so, especially since there has been about 12 billion USD of public funds involved in developing those vaccines, with very little transparency about any related conditions. The Moderna vaccine has become the most striking example of the neoliberal tradition of privatizing profit and socializing expenses. Whereas this small company developed the vaccine exclusively thanks to public funds, and the US government jointly owns the rights, there has been no challenge to the firm’s right to make excessive profits. And it is not shying away from it, selling its doses almost twice the price of the Pfizer vaccine, and almost ten times more than the AstraZeneca one. Even worse, Moderna’s top three executives executives have made more than a 100 million USD by selling their stocks just after announcing the vaccine’s successful development.
Don’t worry, Pfizer & co. won’t die of hunger if we take their vaccines: the law already foresees compensations for compulsory licensing. But there is no legal right to unlimited profits in a time of epidemic emergency. We have suffered enough from the fact that governments have abandoned their role in pharmarceutical research and development and let this field to the whims of Big Pharma. The very same giants that decided not to pursue research on earlier forms of coronaviruses because it didn’t seem financially profitable are now telling us to stay quiet and wait so that they can make a profit? No, societies need to take back their health safety under control and manage it according to the general interest, and not the profits of shareholders.
Already in the first months of the pandemic, there were calls to makes vaccines a ‘public common good’ once they would be developed. On April 24th, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, backed the idea when she said that the future vaccine would be „our universal, common good“. Then, at the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) May 2020 summit, China pledged that it would not license its vaccine, if it succeeded in developing one, making it available for all countries to produce and use. But as vaccines developed by major Western corporations received the green light in late 2020, it became clear that their distribution would follow the laws of the jungle: vaccines for the richest countries, profits for the corporations.
In December 2020, around a hundred countries led by India and South Africa tried to move the WTO Assembly into adopting a resolution waiving intellectual copyrights on anti-Covid vaccination and drugs. They were met by the flat refusal of Western countries, who harbour the headquarters, laboratories, factories and shareholders of Big Pharma. In doing so, Western countries are going directly against the interests (and health and life) of their own citizens, not to talk of humanity in general, but they are successfully upholding the global neoliberal status quo concentrating power and money in the West.
During the pandemic, the global Left has been mostly struck by apathy, sitting back with some Schadenfreude as right-wing governments that had been claiming for years that ‘there is no magic money tree’ started pouring trillions into the economy. Apart from some solidarity actions and calls to protect workers and the vulnerable, the left has not been able to raise its voice to push for more decisive action in the anti-pandemic response, from putting workers’ health before profit to standing up to Big Pharma. Some iniatives are now appearing and we need to rally behind them, taking the streets from the far-right bolstered by conspiracy theorists. From the ‘Zero Covid’ plan to the EU-wide ‘No Profit on Pandemic’ initiative, now is the time to rise and challenge the incompetent and corrupt neoliberal forces.