Vaccine imperialism as a global trading system sinkhole

An illustration picture shows vials with Covid-19 Vaccine stickers attached and syringes, with the logo of the University of Oxford and its partner British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, on November 17, 2020. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

An illustration picture shows vials with Covid-19 Vaccine stickers attached and syringes, with the logo of the University of Oxford and its partner British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, on November 17, 2020. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

Published Feb 4, 2021


By Siyabonga Hadebe

THE EUROPEAN Union (EU) is often cited as an exemplary model for regional political and economic integration in the world.

The EU’s political unity and policy coherence were reduced to a category of children’s books in how it dealt with the coronavirus. When the virus created commotion in Italy, France, etc, each state quickly reclaimed its individual sovereign rights and closed borders. Brussels and Berlin were not their usual self in a state of confusion.

Besides the ongoing war with AstraZeneca and Britain, there has never been a pan-European approach or strategy managed from Brussels to guide Covid-19 responses from Lisbon to Zagreb. This problem was not only in Europe, South Africa was forced to close borders after scores of people from its neighbours could not produce negative test results for Covid.

The regional approach is in dire straits – leadership has been missing and hiding behind high fences.

At the same time, both the EU and the African Union (AU), when it comes to vaccines for treating the coronavirus, are suddenly alive and presenting a united front. The AU vaccine strategy entails sourcing the drug for countries as a collective through the famed Covax facility and or purchasing agreements with major pharmaceutical giants. The European Commission on the other hand has a similar strategy for its 27 members. It looks like the regional blocs are not acting on their own accord.

Not only did the coronavirus expose the weaknesses in the EU system but the AU, its carbon copy, is known for clumsiness in everything it does. For example, it has dismally fallen short in dealing with conflict zones and rarely calls out its member states for rigging elections and human rights abuses. Nonetheless, when it comes to vaccines the two blocs have come alive. Of course, the likes of France and Germany announced that they had made deals with companies “to secure vaccines for their populations and will not purchase them through the international effort”.

It is not clear that the display of unity in the AU and EU has anything to do with money or not. It however appears that their strategies are pushed by powerful pharmaceutical companies that have already captured the world market for vaccines through such things as the COVAX Facility.

As of December, 15, 2020, a number of countries have signed commitment agreements to the COVAX Facility. The US only joined in the beginning of 2021 and Cuba is not part of the scheme. Interestingly, China also joined the scheme after promising to make its vaccines available as a “global public good”.

The Covid pandemic has also poked holes in multi-lateralism, at least in the manner that all countries resorted to individualism and claimed sovereignty in the face of a rippling virus. In the name of curbing the spread of the virus, countries banned international travellers from certain destinations.

There was nothing like “we are in this together, so let’s build a united front!” But pharmaceutical companies understand the game of annexing markets better than anyone else. Thus, it was in their interest to push countries into a corner, which now appears as multi-lateralism, in order to sell to them as a group or groups in the absence of a global trade agreement, in a true sense of the word.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) only deals with top-floor matters, which means that regional trade agreements and bilateral trade agreements have a loudest voice on the movements of goods, services and even people. Otherwise there would be no need of the USCMA (North America), AfCFTA (Africa), European Union Association Agreement, etc. These regional bodies together with individual countries know more about deeper issues of trade, customs and related matters than the WTO.

In order to circumvent the global bureaucracy, the global pharmaceutical companies helped to create the COVAX Facility and also initiated the multimillion-dollar Advance Purchase Agreements (APAs) with individual states to take over the global market as well as to keep out any possible competition. The corporations have also drawn the multilateral institutions like Unicef, WHO, the World Bank and others to gain legitimacy in the eyes of world population.

The COVAX Facility comprises companies such as AstraZeneca/ University of Oxford, Novavax, GlaxoSmithKline, Moderna, etc.

Nicole Hassoun, who is a professor of philosophy at the Binghamton University in the US, reasons “it is better to reward companies for their contributions in other ways – perhaps on the basis of their global health impact.” In short, the vaccine developers protect the market to derive maximum returns on their investments.

What is not said is that these large corporations have created fertile conditions for “vaccine imperialism”. Marxian scholars such as Vladimir Lenin and Aimé Césaire have written extensively on the topic of imperialism and the conditions required for it to flourish. Anjan Chakrabarti sees imperialism as “the domestically induced policy of conquest of the world carried out at the behest of global capital.” Nikolai Bukharin describes it as “a policy of conquest.”

So, besides turning multi-lateralism on its head and transforming the system like an ill-behaved virus, the global pharmaceutical companies are aggressive flag-bearers of neoliberal globalisation under inexplicable circumstances of Covid. It is for this reason that Hassoun feels that “there should be no patents in a pandemic”. But the companies and their mother countries want to hear none of that. Vaccine imperialism therefore “encapsulates much of the erstwhile characteristics of imperialism ...”

Towards the end of 2020, for example, South Africa and India, backed by a hundred countries, wrote to the WTO in order for it to waive its rigid intellectual property rules so as to allow other countries to produce generic vaccines. Britain, USA, EU and other rich countries objected to the proposal since “there must be incentives in place for innovation and competition.” The result of this means that the power of big pharmaceutical corporations is likely to arbitrate who is going to die or survive since not all countries in the world have equal access to vaccines.

The problem of vaccine imperialism does not end with accessibility. It is anti-competitive and not free-market friendly – these are the values that the likes of the WTO and the US manipulate with ease to implement their agendas. On more than one occasion, the US accused China as a non-market economy. For example, the US and the EU in 2019 argued that Chinese goods were “under-priced because of subsidies and state-backed oversupply, giving Chinese exporters an unfair advantage.”

Now when it comes to the vaccines, manufacturers and their home countries equally engage in non-market economy misconduct. They do not just use politics to cast aside a small producer like Cuba but they are also going to make the drugs available to their populations for close to nothing. According to the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank), African countries will pay between $3 (R45) and $10 per vaccine dose to access the shots secured by the AU.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) promotes things like equitable access and claims to be interested in saving human lives. The world body has been reluctant to solve the trading issues including procurement and distribution and cowers to pharmaceutical firms and rich nations. La Izquierda Diario Argentina says that the WHO opted “to prioritise Big Pharma profits over the lives in majority-Black and Brown countries.” As a facilitator of the COVAX Facility, the WHO is part of the problem more than anything else and therefore sponsors vaccine imperialism.

Vaccine imperialism undermines state sovereignty in the sense that countries are expected to breach their own medicine and drug administration laws and protocols in order to allow these vaccines into their own territories. It is a given that companies such as AstraZeneca conducted clinical trials in South Africa, among many other places. It therefore did not come as a shock when the media reported the Indian consignment as a “surprise”.

However, the clinical trials conducted by companies are not sufficient, legally speaking, without South Africa Health Product Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) in South Africa, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US and local enforcement agencies which have a final say in all matters pertaining to allowing certain drugs in their jurisdictions. Their concern is to protect interests of their populations in the public health sphere. That is the reason why some drugs are permitted in some countries and not allowed in other jurisdictions.

When it comes to the vaccines it appears that normal processes have been deliberately bypassed under the pretext of dealing with a crisis. Claudia Cinatti says the vaccines unprecedently received “emergency” approval from national certification agencies in all countries. For instance, SAHPRA on 22 January 2021 granted a Section 21 authorisation to the Department of Health for a vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (an AstraZeneca subsidiary). Section 21 of the Medicines and Related Substances Act authorises the sale of a medical device and drugs requiring registration but not yet registered.

This is, therefore, a demonstration that vaccine imperialism can impose on countries and individuals against their will. Globally, millions of people are going to be inoculated by governments without having obtained their consensual consent. As things stand, countries require a 48-hour negative Covid test result from travellers prior to admission. The next phase is going to be vaccination certificates for Covid that individuals will have to carry with them to airports, work and most places.

The strength of the global pharmaceutical companies manifests in how far individual states are prepared to reserve exclusive rights to the prominent vaccines obtained under both the COVAX Facility and multiples APAs states. The non-market element of these arrangements mean that vaccines, i.e. the Cuban vaccine or Heberon Interferon-Alpha-2B, that fall outside these schemes, are excluded and even discriminated against. Cuba is a member of the WTO since its inception.

In the case of South Africa, it was reported that the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) had through SA Military Health Services applied for the use of the Heberon to the SAHPRA in terms of section 21 and obtained approval on 5 October 2020. Notwithstanding this approval, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations (the Hawks) came knocking in the barracks and demanded to confiscate the drugs alleging that they were not safe for use in South Africa.

On the other side, it took a court order for the SAHPRA to approve the usage of ivermectin in the treatment of Covid patients. Just like the vaccines it was approved for human use in South Africa but it is legal in other countries including the US. Nathan Geffen argues that ivermectin is not a “wonder drug” and the obsession with it is “dangerous”. And University of Pretoria’s Vinny Naidoo also poured cold water on the fascination with ivermectin.

Having seen the emergency approvals for vaccines, the complainants took on the SAHPRA and won. This anecdote illustrates how far the local regulators are prepared to abandon their public mandates under the conditions of global fraud which goes on to expose the global trading system as a death trap. Global pharmaceutical companies have clearly gotten what they want: trade liberalisation on steroids. The global trading system and national laws are forever broken.

The overall impression is that the WTO is an organisation in crisis.

The organisation should be applying the rules of fairness and non-preferential treatment to all its members. The basic principles of international trade include most-favoured nation (MFN) or non-discrimination, transparency, fair competition, etc have been discarded in favour of vaccine imperialism. The combination of rich countries, pharmaceutical companies, WTO and WHO at the base of vaccine imperialism represent what Diario calls “catastrophic moral failure”.

Global pharmaceutical companies epitomise the irrationality of capitalism: their purpose is “to squeeze a profit from everything it touches, even lifesaving vaccines.”

Siya yi banga le economy!

Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent political analyst who writes in his own capacity.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites


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