The government must prove it’s not helping big pharma screw over poorer countries getting vaccines

A scientist holding a vaccine vial

MPs and campaigners are urging the government to prove it’s not putting the interests of pharmaceutical companies above poor countries in need of vaccines.

Cross-party MPs came together to demand the government publish details of communications with pharmaceutical companies and lobbyists to ensure businesses have not been given preferential treatment in vaccine policy.

This comes amid revelations that the Covax programme, meant to provide vaccines to poorer countries, is severely behind on its delivery targets. Pharmaceutical and humanitarian campaigners have called for intellectual property rights on vaccines to be waived so they can be mass-produced and get to struggling nations faster.

However, the UK, along with the US and EU, has blocked a temporary waiver supported by 100 countries.

Calls for public scrutiny

Aimed at ensuring the UK’s opposition had not been influenced by pharmaceutical companies, the statement, signed by 24 MPs and seven advocacy organisations, reads:

With spare vaccine manufacturing sitting idle and COVID cases rapidly rising around the world it is outrageous that the government continues to side with the pharmaceutical industry and their profits over the action needed to save more lives and end the pandemic.

The signatories, which include Zarah Sultana (Labour), Caroline Lucas (Green), Wera Hobhouse (Lib Dem), Global Justice Now, and Just Treatment, called for:

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public scrutiny of any corporate influence over the government’s domestic and international vaccine policy to ensure that no preferential access has been given and no secret deals have been made using taxpayers money without accountability or oversight.

Millions more lives at risk

Former world leaders have already written to Joe Biden asking for him to support the waiving of vaccine intellectual property rights. Among them were François Hollande, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Gordon Brown.

Scientists from Independent Sage have also added their support to a waiver. Member Gabriel Scally said the UK’s opposition to the waiver could have great consequences for the continuation of the pandemic.

Heidi Chow, policy and campaigns manager at Global Justice Now, said the UK’s opposition to a vaccine waiver was “utterly indefensible”. She added:

With a real scandal emerging over big business’s preferential access to this government, we must ask: is the UK’s reckless opposition to a patent waiver because of undeclared big pharma lobbying? We have a right to know if the Prime Minister has thrown low and middle income countries under the bus to protect private profits.

Lead organiser at Just Treatment Diarmaid McDonald said:

Boris Johnson hailed corporate ‘greed’ as the cause of the UK’s vaccine success but that greed is in fact worsening the pandemic, putting millions more lives at risk – including NHS patients.

We need to fully understand what is motivating the government to consistently side with big pharma to oppose measures that could break unfair monopolies, scale up vaccine production and save lives.

Vaccine inequality

Covax is a scheme set up by the World Health Organisation (WHO), that encourages rich countries and charities to buy vaccines for poorer countries. However, a Guardian analysis found that Covax has so far only delivered around a fifth of the Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccine doses expected to be delivered by May.

Pakistan, Myanmar, Mexico, and Bangladesh haven’t received any doses of the vaccines promised.

A number of factors have caused the delays. The Indian government cut exports from its biggest vaccine manufacturer in response to its second wave. Similarly, rich countries striking private deals with manufacturers has undermined the scheme.

Earlier in April, Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore implored countries with sufficient vaccines to donate 5% of their supply to countries in need. She said:

At the current rate, there is simply not enough vaccine supply to meet demand. And the supply available is concentrated in the hands of too few. Some countries have contracted enough doses to vaccinate their populations several times, while other countries have yet to receive even their first dose. This threatens us all. The virus and its mutations will win.

Featured image via Flickr/U.S. Secretary of Defense

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