EU / UK Vaccine spat highlights the need for a ‘radical shake-up in the way vaccines are produced’

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The European Medicines Agency plans to deliver its verdict on the Oxford/AstraZeneca Coronavirus (Covid-19) vaccine on 29 January. But Brussels could also announce powers that would block the shipment of millions of vaccine doses to Britain within days.

The European Commission (EC) is considering an export ban in a bid to solve its vaccine supply shortage issues. Member states were forced to pause or delay rollout, after AstraZeneca – which aims to supply two million doses per week to the UK – allegedly told the EC that only a quarter of the 100 million doses it was expecting by March were likely to be delivered.

Preventing the export of vaccines from the EU to the UK could impact the UK’s access to further supplies, particularly to the Belgian-made Pfizer jab.


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AstraZeneca on Friday published a redacted version of its contract with the EU which it said was important for “accountability”.

The contract mentions that the firm would use “best reasonable efforts” to use two UK plants as production sites for vaccines destined for the EU.

But campaign group Global Justice Now warned today that the dispute between the EU and Britain will be a “dangerous sign of things to come”. It called for a “radical shake-up in the way vaccines are produced”. It put the blame for rollout issues squarely at the door of ‘big pharma’. And it called for:

the immediate suspension of patents on Covid-19 vaccines, and an international plan to ramp up production as rapidly as possible, alongside distribution based on need, not wealth.

In a press release seen by The Canary, Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, said:

The speed with which scientists have discovered these vaccines is awe-inspiring, but we fear the dispute between the EU and Britain is a worrying sign of things to come. Big business should not have the power to decide who is vaccinated first. Unless we fundamentally change who controls the supply of vaccines, this dispute will be the first of many and could lead the world down a dangerous path.

There is a lot of focus on what will happen to the current limited doses, but the bigger question is why are we allowing big pharma’s patents to artificially limit the supply of these vital vaccines?

Profits before people

Dearden continued:

European countries are discovering what the rest of the world has long known: big pharma puts profits before people. While the EU and Britain argue about who gets vaccines first, many countries in the world have never so much as sniffed a vaccine. It’s frankly disgusting that very healthy young people in wealthy countries are being put ahead of desperately vulnerable people in lower income countries. What we need is an international plan to produce and distribute as many vaccines as we can, as quickly as we can, to those who most need them first. Brussels and London should learn from this situation, suspend patents, and work together to ramp up supply now.”

Both South Africa and India’s governments have proposed that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) suspends intellectual property rights of Covid-19 vaccines until the pandemic is under control. However, the UK and EU have opposed the proposal.

Further rows at home

The supply row has spilled over into domestic politics, with the Scottish Government suggesting it could go against Downing Street advice and publish vaccine supply data.

Prison minister Lucy Frazer said the UK Government was advising against sharing the information for “security reasons”. But Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon said her administration would “go back to publishing the actual supply figures from next week” so that there was full transparency.

Holyrood ministers were previously forced to change vaccination documents they had published online when the UK government said setting out how many doses are expected and when, could breach commercial confidentiality.

Frazer said the UK Government was being “extremely transparent” whilst arguing that supply data could not be disclosed.

“The Government isn’t hiding anything at all. My understanding is that it is for security reasons,” she told the BBC. “I think we have been extremely transparent, where it is appropriate to do so, to inform the public about how we are managing the pandemic.”

Pressed on what she meant by “security reasons”, the junior minister replied: “That is the information I have received.”

With vaccine rollout shrouded in secrecy, Dearden’s calls for greater transparency ring all the louder:

Every available manufacturer in the world should be producing these vaccines, and governments should be doing whatever it takes to increase manufacturing capacity for the whole world. Instead a handful of massively wealthy corporations are now deciding who gets the vaccines first, based on keeping the customer satisfied, not on saving people’s lives. This will continue to fuel suspicion and to pit countries against each other.

Additional information via Press Association. Featured image via Press Association.

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