On vaccines, the UK is putting corporate interests ahead of saving lives around the world
It is one year since the WHO declared coronavirus a pandemic. During these last 12 months, scientists have achieved the incredible feat of inventing several vaccines to deal with this deadly disease. They’ve done this thanks to unprecedented levels of public funding, thanks to the participation of tens of thousands of trial volunteers, and thanks to the work of overstretched health services like the NHS here in Britain and health workers across the world.
In other words, developing this vaccine – and indeed beating this virus more generally – has been a collective effort.
And yet, when all is said and done, the fruits of our collective effort have been handed over to a group of gigantic corporations, some of which have made a fortune off these vaccines. These corporations now decide which countries get to vaccinate their populations immediately, which have to wait and who pays what price for the vaccines.
And even though this has led to levels of inequality which have shocked the whole world – really a vaccine apartheid as many of my fellow panellists tonight have described it – I’m sad to say the government of my own country is still putting corporate interests ahead of saving lives around the world.
Equality not charity
It’s true that Boris Johnson announced, at a G7 meeting two weeks ago, that he would be donating vaccines to countries around the world in order to correct this inequality. This sounds good – after all Britain has bought many times more vaccines than we could possibly use here. So I’ve been trying to pin him down in parliament over the last fortnight on what that promise actually amounts to.
What I’ve discovered is shocking. That these donations will not be made until we’re absolutely sure that we have no use for the vaccines, and that this isn’t likely to happen for many many months. That the donations will only be taken from the government’s share of Covax vaccines – not from the pool of vaccines we’ve bought bilaterally. And, perhaps worst of all, that the government might well expect payment for these vaccines. So not really donations at all.
So much for the largesse of the British government. But you know we shouldn’t have to rely on charity anyway. As the South African government recently told the WTO: “The problem with philanthropy is that it cannot buy equality.” That’s what we’re here tonight to argue for – equality. And you can’t have equality when all the power is in the hands of a small minority of the world’s population. So if we want equality, we need system change.
And let’s remember, the current system actually doesn’t work in the interests of anyone except the corporate investors of big pharma. Even those of us who are lucky enough to have received a vaccine are at risk from the continued spread of Covid.
So it matters to all of us that, one year on from the pandemic being declared, factories across the world are lying idle, unable to produce vaccines. While this shortage is felt most acutely across the global south, it prevents all of us from being able to contain and, hopefully, eradicate this coronavirus.
We cannot allow our collective effort in this pandemic to be privatised, to be turned into nothing more than an opportunity for a few to profit. That’s why I’m so delighted to be part of this distinguished panel. We’re really building something extraordinary here. Back in my days in the European parliament, I remember how hard it was to get people interested in the vagaries of TRIPS and the WTO. Well thanks to this campaign, we’ve made it a major news story in just a few months.
So intense is the pressure, we might well see some compromises from northern governments this week. Well, if we do, let’s bank that, but let’s also keep going for the really big goal – a medical system based on collaboration, on sharing, on putting the health of people all around the world ahead of narrow self-interest. Such a health system could transform the world, eradicating many diseases, and transforming the lives of millions of people.
That’s how big the prize is here. What you’re achieving is incredible. I’m thrilled to be part of it. Good luck and solidarity.
Speech delivered to the People’s Vaccine global rally, 10 March 2021.