Profiteering from illness a concern

Corporate accountability needs to be the lynchpin to advance progress on treaties like the pandemic treaty, says the writer. Picture: Pexels

Corporate accountability needs to be the lynchpin to advance progress on treaties like the pandemic treaty, says the writer. Picture: Pexels

Published Aug 7, 2022


By Shobha Shukla

Unless profiteering from illness stops, corporations which are becoming richer even during disasters and pandemics, will continue to pressure governments to not advance pro-people policies.

“Normalisation” of minting unbridled profits from illness, is one of the reasons why health and social welfare programmes have failed to deliver equitably. Corporate accountability needs to be the lynchpin to advance progress on treaties like the pandemic treaty.

Also, it is important to ensure UN agencies remain free of conflict of interest of any kind. The Covid-19 pandemic not only exposed how ill-prepared we were to respond to a public health emergency but also, showed if governments fail to address corporate capture of public policy, we will not be able to respond equitably, thereby making us all vulnerable in face of any crisis.

Talks resumed earlier this week around the World Health Organization’s (WHO) pandemic treaty. The draft is expected to prompt discussion around the important issues it does address and those it notably does not, like corporate political interference.

Civil society is imploring the WHO and governments to, in the treaty text, explicitly rebuke this interference; this with the private sector’s role in blocking vaccines from reaching low- and middle-income countries yet a fresh reminder of how commercial interests can circumvent public health policy.

“This isn’t a theoretical exercise. The very industries the International Negotiating Body (INB) would welcome into the pandemic treaty process, have and continue to block vaccines and medications from reaching millions of people globally, whose health or lives could otherwise be spared,” said Daniel Dorado, director of policy organising and tobacco campaign at Corporate Accountability.

Ironically, the WHO leadership and delegates have repeatedly heralded the only existing global health treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), as a model for the new pandemic treaty.

Experts attribute the success of the FCTC to its strong safeguards against industry interference. Yet consultations with those familiar with the FCTC and its safeguards have to date been limited.

What’s more, tobacco industry ownership of pharmaceutical corporations has been receiving media attention. In contravention of the FCTC, Canada partnered with cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris International to produce a Covid vaccine.

British American Tobacco has its own vaccine candidate as well. And this is but part of a larger trend of Big Tobacco “pharmaceuticalisation” aimed at improving the pariah industry's image, political access, and profitability.

“Countries should avoid promoting pandemic responses that deepen other pandemics. And, although Big Pharma may not always be owned by Big Tobacco, it doesn’t justify the INB allowing vested, commercial interests carte blanche to sit at the negotiating table,” said Bobby Ramakant, a tobacco control expert from India.

Apologists for industry involvement in the new treaty point to the distinctiveness of pharmaceutical corporations from tobacco corporations. One saves lives, while another wrecks them, they say.

This oversimplification, advocates note, neglects the statutory conflicts between profit and the best outcomes for health policy. It also neglects the troubling track record of market abuses and violations of international law perpetuated by leading vaccine manufacturers.

They have paid billions to settle lawsuits around everything from bribery and fraud to off-label promotion. They have also driven the global opioid epidemic, which continues to cause rampant addiction, suffering, and death.

“Do we really want to allow these entities to steer pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response?” asked Philip Jakpor, director of programmes with Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa.

* This is an edited version of the article first published in the Citizen News Service