The Covid-19 Vaccines Conundrum

Time is of the essence if we want to contain and overcome the distress, death toll and dire socio-economic consequences of the pandemic

By Mrinal Roy

Access to Covid-19 vaccines is currently a major bottleneck to the goal of achieving herd immunity and steering the world on a pathway towards a modicum of normality.

“The penury of vaccines is artificial because of the constraints imposed by property rights. Without such questionable impediments in a pandemic, the production of Covid-19 vaccines can be significantly hiked to meet global demand. As is the case for most vaccines and medicines, the bulk of the demand for Covid-19 vaccines is from the low and middle-income countries…”

In February 2020, ahead of the official World Health Organization (WHO) announcement of the Covid-19 pandemic, hundreds of public health and infectious disease experts gathered at the WHO offices in Geneva and spent two days defining an ‘R&D Blueprint’ in preparation for a coronavirus pandemic. The underlying premise was that the world would unite and team up to fight and overcome the virus. There would be active collaboration and open source access to research and information-sharing among the global research community to minimize duplication and accelerate the discovery of vaccines.

Intellectual property rights were not mentioned in the scientific paper. Despite past experience regarding the protracted battle to have access to HIV drugs at affordable prices in affected developing countries, the scientists hoped that the scale of the threat and challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic would supplant the prevailing global medicine and drug distribution system based on proprietary rights and market monopolies.

On an optimistic note, the Financial Times in an editorial on 27 March 2020 wrote that ‘the world has an overwhelming interest in ensuring Covid-19 drugs and vaccines will be universally and cheaply available.’ The scientists therefore proposed that public and private actors would collect research and associated intellectual property in a global knowledge fund for the duration of the pandemic. To this end, the WHO Covid-19 Technology Access Pool or C-TAP was thus launched in May 2020.

Thwarted hopes

This optimism and global battle plan against the Covid-19 pandemic was however short-lived. The exclusive intellectual property rights have not been waived. Instead, the COVAX initiative which only provides vaccines for up to 20% of the population in low-to-middle-income countries has been patronizingly proposed. More than 165 countries, representing 60% of the world population have joined the COVAX initiative. This basically means that they would have to compete and battle on the global market to obtain an additional 50% of their vaccine requirements in order to assure herd immunity in a context of strapped vaccine supplies in the world. How and when will this daunting objective be achieved?

Despite hopes of global solidarity to together fight and win the battle against a common threat, intellectual property rights remain at the centre of the global crisis of supply and access to Covid-19 vaccines. Is this narrow approach a viable way forward to overcome the pandemic and achieve a modicum of normality? In a context of pandemic and rising death toll should we not free Covid-19 vaccines which are the result of pointed research by high calibre scientists using their scientific expertise for the common good from the straightjacket of restrictive rules to assure affordable and swift access to vaccines to the world?

Why should intellectual property rights be imposed when the world is enduring the throes of such a deadly and disastrous pandemic? The penury of vaccines is artificial because of the constraints imposed by property rights. Without such questionable impediments in a pandemic, the production of Covid-19 vaccines can be significantly hiked to meet global demand. As is the case for most vaccines and medicines, the bulk of the demand for Covid-19 vaccines is from the low and middle-income countries.

Government funding

In this context it must be flagged that the development of mRNA vaccines was fraught with risks as it was a new and pioneering technology. The US government therefore used federal funds, hence tax payers funds, to underwrite the research costs of the Moderna and Pfizer mRNA vaccines. How can the two mRNA vaccines now be under the monopoly control of these giant pharmaceutical companies?

The uphill battle for access to Covid-19 vaccines has been further complicated by the decision taken on 13 April 2021 by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to call for a pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine after reports of a ‘rare and severe’ type of blood clot in some vaccine recipients. We should remember that the drugmaker Johnson & Johnson has concluded a deal to supply the African Union member countries with up to 400 million doses of its single jab Covid-19 vaccine.

The upshot is that the current situation significantly restricts swift access to affordable Covid-19 vaccines to the majority of the population of the world. Is it not high time to urgently waive these decried rules under the present grim circumstances and boost Covid-19 vaccine production to ensure that every country of the world has swift and affordable access to vaccines for the benefit of humanity and the world? Time is of the essence if we want to contain and overcome the distress, death toll and dire socio-economic consequences of the pandemic.

* * *

Sorting the wheat from the chaff

Spin doctoring of every hue and colour, state spawned narratives and social media spun fake news are having a field day. People are constantly being the object of sly manipulation. People therefore have to be extremely more vigilant and perpetually exercise sound judgment to gauge all the information and news dished out daily on media channels or conjured and relayed in viral mode on social media.

In a world where people are more and more exposed and trapped in the insidious web of fake news, it is more and more imperative to hone our ability to rationally discern the genuine information from the trumped up and questionable piece of news. We basically need to systematically sort the wheat from the chaff.

Thank goodness, the investigative rigour of some media groups and independent investigative journalists such as the Gray Zone and others cut through the spin doctoring and systematically expose contrived narratives to provide bearings and guide those with a questioning mind through the deluge of news we are in Mcluhanish mode daily brainwashed with.

Sometimes it takes time, determination and insightful investigative journalism to dig out the truth buried in well orchestrated narratives. For example, the invasion of Iraq by allied forces was triggered by repeated accusations of President George W. Bush and his top officials that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). This claim has been debunked. The world now knows that there were no WMD in Iraq. The blind pursuit of geopolitical interests have plunged the world in so many questionable and deadly wars causing tremendous distress to people.

Similarly, some three years ago, the Syrian government was accused of an alleged chemical weapon attack in Douma in Syria, where at least 50 civilians were reportedly killed. At the time experienced military officials raised serious doubts as to whether it was likely that Syria would carry such a condemnable attack when it was on the verge of a military victory. This alleged attack swiftly triggered retaliatory air strikes against the Syrian government by the US, UK and France.

Debunked narratives

The conclusion of the investigation of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the world’s top chemical weapons watchdog, into the alleged attack that there were ‘reasonable grounds’ to conclude a chemical attack had occurred is at the centre of a major crisis. Veteran OPCW inspectors who investigated the alleged chemical attack in Douma say that their probe was censored and manipulated. Their original report concluded that observed symptoms of the victims in Douma ‘were inconsistent with exposure to chlorine and no other obvious candidate chemical causing the symptoms could be identified.’

A series of whistleblowers and veteran inspectors within the OPCW as well as its former chief, José Bustani, have openly challenged the conclusions of the report on Douma. Speaking to the UN Security Council last week, veteran German diplomat and former UN Assistant Secretary-General Hans von Sponeck called for an end to the ‘stonewalling of accountability and unacceptable smear tactics’ against members of the Douma investigative team who had challenged the tenor and conclusions of the report.

In an open letter entitled ‘Statement of concern’ released last month, a long list of international personalities including José Bustani, Professor Noam Chomsky, former presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard and a host of academics, etc., have expressed their deep concern that ‘since the publication by the OPCW of its final report on the alleged Douma attack in March 2019, a series of worrying developments has raised serious questions with respect to the conduct of that investigation.’ They add that ‘it is now well established that some senior inspectors involved with the investigation, one of whom played a central role, reject its conclusions and OPCW management now stands accused of accepting unsubstantiated or possibly manipulated findings with the most serious geo-political and security implications.’

Damning indictment

This is a damning indictment amid the growing outcry over the Douma scandal. It raises profound questions regarding the independence and neutrality of major international institutions such as the OPCW tasked with ensuring international peace and security.

These developments also focus attention on mainstream TV channels and media groups across the world which carried away by the breaking news rat race blithely relay narratives spun by governments, opposition parties, corporations and other vested lobbies, some of which are subsequently debunked. Without the objective scrutiny and acid test of incisive investigative journalism, they stake their credibility, relevance and survival.

* Published in print edition on 23 April 2021

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