An open letter from The Boycott Times Editorial Board:
The latest in a series of proposals brought by India and South Africa to the World Trade Organization (WTO), backed by over 100 countries, to temporarily suspend COVID-19 vaccine patents was blocked by western powers, namely the United States, United Kingdom, and the European Union. The patents that give monopoly rights over the manufacture and sale of drugs like the COVID-19 vaccines are protected globally by The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), signed in 1994 by the WTO.
A temporary TRIPS waiver would allow cutting-edge vaccines to be shared widely, allowing its generic manufacture in many countries in the global South that already have robust vaccine production facilities. This would ramp up production and make affordable vaccines available worldwide. The TRIPS agreement even has a waiver in place for situations of national emergencies. Instead of considering this idea, however, the Biden administration’s Chamber of Commerce warned the head of the WTO to stop entertaining patent waiver motions. This letter is a call for a dramatic shift in that policy.
The U.S. has also rejected the idea of sharing a single vaccine until fully vaccinated, refusing to export unused doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, yet to be approved by the FDA, even with fellow western allies in Europe. “America First” has outlasted Donald Trump.
TRIPS has no business being applied to global public health. Intellectual property in the form of patents has been wielded as a weapon by big pharma and the heads of nation-states, denying countless millions in the global South access to abundant, vital, cheap medication, while reaping billions. “TRIPS,” Joseph Stiglitz writes in Making Globalization Work, “imposed on the entire world the dominant intellectual property regime of the United States and Europe.”
WE’VE SEEN THIS BEFORE: THE HIV CRISIS
At the peak of the HIV crisis, the inability to procure antiretroviral drugs because of strict western patents needlessly led to the deaths of tens of millions across the global South, most acutely in Africa, as revealed by the documentary “Fire in the Blood.”
In the late 1990s, Peter Mugyenyi, an HIV doctor in Uganda, asked a generic medicine manufacturer in India to send his afflicted country cheap antiretroviral drugs crucial for fighting the virus. Unable to afford expensive branded drug prices from western pharmaceutical companies, Mugyenyi turned to India (the world’s largest producer of cheap generics). When the generics arrived at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda they were initially seized for violating intellectual property rights.
In 2009, a freight of life-saving HIV medications sent to Nigerian clinics from India was also seized during transit, this time at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.
These colonial battle lines are being drawn again with COVID-19 vaccines. An apartheid of unprecedented magnitude, the world is being cut in two: a vaccinated minority in gated communities and the unvaccinated masses on the other side, in what will inevitably be seen as a sealed-off COVID slum. “Europe is trying to vaccinate 80%,” warned Africa’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. John Nkengasong. “The United States is trying to vaccinate everybody. They will finish vaccinating, impose travel restrictions and then Africa becomes ‘the continent of Covid’.”
To date, the United States has vaccinated over 100 million people. The U.K. has ordered 400 million doses of seven different vaccines, more than six times its population. Canada has hoarded enough vaccines to inoculate all its people five times over. Meanwhile, 130 countries, almost all in the global South, have yet to receive, let alone administer, a single dose. In addition, Israel has vaccinated the most people per capita in the world, administering almost 9 million doses of the coveted Pfizer vaccine, but Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, both under Israeli control, are seeing infections surge. Israel has given occupied Palestine only 5,000 vaccines.
But the gravest vaccine apartheid of all, affecting the majority of humanity, and rapidly diminishing the chances for a global exit from the pandemic, was set in stone when the WTO refused to temporarily lift the patents on COVID-19 vaccines.
COVAX, a program run by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Gavi Vaccine Alliance to purchase vaccines for the world’s lower income countries, is seen as a hallmark of western philanthropy and benevolence. Yet it follows the eerie playbook of the western aid industry: giving with one hand as a cover for taking far more with the other. Ghana, the first country in Africa to receive vaccines via the COVAX program, got 300,000 doses, enough for just one percent of its population, while the vast majority of available doses are reserved for COVAX’s donor countries.
Without vaccine equity, we risk a world in which human mobility is stifled even more than it was before the pandemic, via restrictive militarized borders, a racialized travel privilege hierarchy, and passport power. The world risks deepening xenophobia, racism, even more hardened border policies, and a rapid, wholesale abandonment of equal human worth—a supposed cornerstone of western values.
The west risks the ire of humanity. Few will forgive, none will forget.
If vaccine passports are implemented, they will privilege a tiny minority of humanity. The E.U. said it will accept vaccine passports only with vaccinations approved by the European Medicines Agency. So far, only western vaccines have been approved. Chinese, Russian, Indian, and Cuban vaccines face a long road to approval, if at all. The approval process for COVAX, determined by the WHO, is also tinged with colonial notions. Non-western vaccines are unable to get approved as quickly, with speedier, preferential accreditation and legitimacy given to western science.
There are two options left: we can repeat the bravado of the HIV era—in which countries like India ignored western patents—and risk seizures of vital, fragile vaccines at ports or in transit under pressure by western powers. Or if you live in a western country, you can write your representative, MP, or relevant authority to urge your country’s leaders to abandon the heartless, short-sighted, blocking of universal access to the chief exit strategy we have from the worst pandemic in a century. In the U.K., you can add your voice to an open letter to the government calling for a suspension of intellectual property. (If you’d like to add your name to this open letter email us at: TheSmoke@BoycottX.org)
END VACCINE APARTHEID NOW
Bernie Sanders has urged Biden to change course and side with the Indian and South African proposals. He’s not alone. Nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults agree. With local, public pressure (because all politics is local; your rep cares about their state or district first) you can help end this pandemic.
Vaccines are not only a global public good, but they were also designed via a global process. Without Dr. Zhang Yongzhen’s genetic sequencing of the virus and the ingenuity of Turkish immigrants to Germany who developed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, new mRNA vaccines would not have been possible. Epidemiologists have said that a gap in vaccination can create the conditions for mutations that could render existing vaccines ineffective, leading to the “nightmare scenario of a never-ending pandemic.”
In the wake of last summer’s anti-colonial reckoning, which forced the western world to confront itself, many symbols were dismantled. Now is a chance to translate that energy into policy. The dismantling of vaccine apartheid would be a monumental culmination of what brought young people into the streets for months: a ceaseless struggle against the killer inequities of a colonial era eager to outlive its day.
Vaccine equity now,
Vik Sohonie, The Boycott Times Editorial Board (Bangkok, Thailand)
Cornel West, The Boycott Times Advisory Board (Cambridge [MA], U.S.)
Christine Mungai, The Boycott Times Editorial Board (Nairobi, Kenya)
Lorgia García-Peña, The Boycott Times Advisory Board (Cambridge [MA], U.S.)
Tef Poe, The Boycott Times Editorial Board & Executive Director (St. Louis [MO], U.S.)
Walter Johnson, The Boycott Times Advisory Board (Cambridge [MA], U.S.)
Mordecai Lyon, The Boycott Times Editorial Board & Editor in Chief (New York, U.S.)
Ciarra Jones, The Boycott Times Editorial Board (Los Angeles, U.S.)
Andrew Ross, The Boycott Times Advisory Board (New York, U.S.)
Corey Black, The Boycott Times Contributor (St. Louis [MO], U.S.)
Danny Hernandez, The Boycott Times Creative Director (Medellín, Colombia)
Asta Selloane Sekamane, The Boycott Times Contributor (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Magda Matache, The Boycott Times Advisory Board (Cambridge [MA], U.S.)
Suraj Yengde, The Boycott Times Advisory Board (Cambridge [MA], U.S.)
Samora Pinderhughes, The Boycott Times Contributor (New York, U.S.)
Darien Pollock, The Boycott Times Advisory Board (Atlanta, U.S.)
Daaimah Abdul-Hakeem Buffins, The Boycott Times Advisory Board (New York, U.S.)
Ismail Abdul-Hakeem Buffins, The Boycott Times Advisory Board (Ann Arbor, U.S.)
Matt Kumin, The Boycott Times General Counsel (Oakland [CA], U.S.)
Amy Lyon, The Boycott Times Advisory Board (Wilmington [NC], U.S.)
Nasir Almasri, The Boycott Times Contributor (Chicago, U.S.)
steve núñez, The Boycott Times Contributor (Manchester [CT], U.S.)
Todne Thomas, Assistant Professor | African American Religions, (Cambridge [MA], U.S.)
Andrew Goldstein, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine (New York, U.S.)
Mark Kabban, The Boycott Times Contributor (San Diego [CA], U.S.)
Kristian Blackmon, The Boycott Times Contributor (St. Louis [MO], U.S.)
Najha Zigbi-Johnson, The Boycott Times Contributor (New York, U.S.)
Yasmeen Al-Shawwa, The Boycott Times Contributor (Medellín, Colombia)
Becca Rose, The Boycott Times Contributor (Somerville [MA], U.S.)
Panagioti Tsolkas, The Boycott Times Contributor (Gainesville [FL], U.S.)
K Salaam, The Boycott Times Contributor (Vancouver, Canada)
Andrew Segal, The Boycott Times Advisory Board (Chicago, U.S.)
Leena Yumeen, The Boycott Times Contributor (Weston [FL], U.S.)
K.C. O’Keife, The Boycott Times Contributor (New Orleans, U.S.)
Lyfestile, The Boycott Times Contributor (St. Louis [MO], U.S.)
Thomas Bunn, Against The Grain Films (Inglewood [CA], U.S.)
Maritza Flores (Pacoima [CA], U.S.)
Nik Howard, Doctoral Researcher (London, U.K.)
Janto Djassi Roessner (Hamburg, Germany)
(If you’d like to add your name to this open letter email us at: TheSmoke@BoycottX.org)